|Genre||Avant-pop / Electropop|
|Length||42 minutes, 48 seconds|
|Release Date||March 29, 2019|
At just 17 years old, Billie Ellish is topping charts and changing pop music with her debut album WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?. Written by herself and her producer brother, Finneas O’Connor, the songs on this album are deeply emotional, genre-bending, and at times incredibly unsettling. While the content of the songs may be a bit more mature than that of other singers around her age, Billie is speaking openly about the pressures her generation faces: perfectionism, growing up too fast, “follow your heart,” rampant depression and anxiety, and having to deal with their culture changing too quickly.
Billie Eilish grew up in a Christian household with a close-knit family. She was homeschooled alongside her brother, which is what she says allowed her to pursue a music career so early. Despite growing up with a loving and supportive family, Billie has discussed dealing with depression and sleep paralysis for most of her life. The lyrics in her songs, as well as the themes of her music videos, are heavily influenced by these illnesses. Billie has said in several different interviews that this album was designed to explore each of her fears in a way to take control over them.
Spiritual Content: Although the track “all the good girls go to hell” is about climate change, Billie refers to God as “herself” and states that in the end, she will need the “devil on her team.” Mentions Lucifer being “lonely.”
Violence: references to stepping on and biting glass, stapling your tongue, several mentions of “ending” her life or the lives of her friends, setting herself on fire appears once. Sounds of a knife being sharpened and a drill are in the background of a couple of tracks, references to drowning and jumping from a roof, several references to blood. The words “cannibal” and “killing” appears a few times.
Language: Hell is spoken in two tracks, the word a** is alluded to with “kiss my – asking”
Sexual Content: physical intimacy is alluded to several times, but never explicitly mentioned or detailed. “Bruises on my knees”, “Am I satisfactory?”, reference to being the “seduce your dad type”, and being someone’s animal. One song titled “wish you were gay” is about a man breaking up with her because he’s no longer interested, but she states it would be easier to deal with if he was gay instead. Mentions someone’s lips on her skin, friction, and being a “like it rough guy.”
Drug/Alcohol References: “xanny” references people taking drugs and drinking to feel better, mentions secondhand smoke, although this song is from the perspective of Billie, who does not drink/do drugs and does not glorify partaking in these things.
Other Negative Themes: The only other negatives in this album are the general themes of depression, being rejected, different fears and their manifestations, references to death as being easier than life, and feeling abandoned.
Positive Content: Billie is very honest about her fears and not wanting them to rule her. Her references to drugs and alcohol are out of sadness for people who believe they need them to feel better. While some songs refer to being rejected by someone she loved, there are also themes of female empowerment and overcoming rejection.
With WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, Billie Eilish brings to light many issues in today’s culture. She writes about drug abuse, depression, anxiety, climate change, and becoming intimate before marriage. While she may not be looking at these issues through the lens of a Christian, she is honestly examining these things as a young adult trying to figure out the truth. She has a unique way of vocalizing her beliefs by using nightmares and dark mental health imagery.
Her lyrics mention people being drugged out of their minds or needing medication to “feel better.”
What is it about them?
I must be missing something
They just keep doin’ nothing
Too intoxicated to be scared
Billie sings about love lost and love given away only to be torn apart.
So I think I better go
I never really know how to please you
You’re lookin’ at me like I’m see-through
I guess I’m gonna go
I just never know how you feel
Do you even feel anything?
She even has a song about climate change on this album (“Hills burn in California/My turn to ignore ya/Don’t say I didn’t warn ya”). The layers of herself that she peels back for the world to see is a level of vulnerability many musicians have attempted to produce and failed. She put so much care and thought into her music, even if at first listen it can seem childish or like a spectacle.
As a personal example, the first time I heard “bad guy,” I immediately thought Billie Eilish was just another teenage popstar singing about mature things just to cause a stir, much like Miley Cyrus after Disney. I didn’t take her music seriously and didn’t bother digging in deeper. Then, a friend of mine showed me the music video to “bury a friend” and I couldn’t believe this was the same artist. Not that the music was different, but because it felt like she ripped the words right out of my chest. As someone who struggles daily with depression and anxiety, I immediately felt heard and understood. Billie was asking the same questions I had of those around me often.
What do you want from me? Why don’t you run from me?
What are you wondering? What do you know?
Why aren’t you scared of me? Why do you care for me?
When we all fall asleep, where do we go?
From that moment, I was hooked. The honesty she writes with is painful and real. In several interviews, she’s been asked if she truly wants to die or if she is suicidal and her music is a cry for help. I understand that concern because Billie is romanticizing death with the longing way she sings about it. When asked about her depression by Zane Lowe in an Apple Music’s Beats interview, she stated “It’s different for some people and it’s okay. I feel like people are just so weird about it because people that aren’t neutrally unhappy don’t understand how it is because they’re like, ‘Well why are you unhappy all the time when you have da da da da?’” (Warning for the video of the interview: Billie uses a LOT of language). She’s normalizing depression and trying to take control that way.
Billie has also spoken about suffering from sleep paralysis, a condition where a person wakes from a deep sleep unable to move or speak, but able to see shadows or hear voices around them. She writes about this in “bury a friend” very bluntly: “Then my limbs all froze and my eyes won’t close” It’s a terrifying thing to deal with, but in her songs, she seems to be trying to humanize the monsters under her bed, even referring to herself as the monster instead.
I like the way they all scream
Tell me which one is worse
Living or dying first
Sleeping inside a hearse (I don’t dream)
She’s using her gift for songwriting to battle her demons within. Of course, she sings about the normal teenage problems, too: heartbreak, drama, loving someone who wasn’t meant to be with you, and watching everyone around you make bad decisions. She just handles her issues differently by putting them to music.
Her music is just as unique as her lyrics. Her genre has been classified as avant-pop, meaning it’s innovative and original pop music. Billie uses hip-hop and R&B, but also indie-folk and ballads in her songs. There are a lot of deep bass drops and times where the music cuts out entirely for her to sing. The slower ballads also have some of the bass, but focus more on a light acoustic or piano melody. The production of her songs is excellent with the different sounds and instruments being clear instead of muddled from the bass.
There are a lot of instances where her voice becomes one of the instruments in the background. The song “xanny” is a quieter ballad and her voice is acting as a string instrument in a high falsetto behind her actual singing. Billie is an extremely talented singer. Her style is very close-to-the-mic whisper singing, while using a lot of breath instead of pushing with her diaphragm. She uses a lot of vocal cracks to add more emotion to her songs. Then she will shift and push her vocals a little harder, and add harmony that sounds minor enough to give the listener an uneasy feeling. There are also times where she puts a filter over her voice to make it sound distorted and twisted, to add the creepy horror vibe she likes so much. It’s an entrancing combination to have this beautiful, feminine voice over this unsettling music with dark imagery.
Along with that dark imagery is the cover art. I absolutely love the cover of this album. It’s just a dark background with Billie sitting on the edge of a bed in all white sweats. She’s looking directly at the camera with white out contacts (they cover the iris and pupil entirely) and smiling the scariest, most insane smile I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of a nightmare I had when I was younger of walking into my room and having something sitting on my bed that just stared at me. I can’t imagine a better cover for Billie Eilish’s album. It fits her message so perfectly of trying to take control of her fears and going so far as to become one herself. It’s sure to grab the attention of anyone scrolling through current charts or a CD rack (Does anyone use those anymore??).
Billie and her brother, Finneas, added a lot of fun sound clips in this album, too. The very first track “!!!!!!!” is just a clip of her taking her Invisalign braces out and laughing that “this is the album!” She’s joked in interviews that they left this in because of how often she and her brother laughed about this before each recording. The song “my strange addiction” has several clips from the US version of The Office from the episode surrounding Michael Scott (one main character) showing his first movie Threat Level Midnight and performing his dance “The Scarn.” She said she wanted to use this clip because she believes she is addicted to this show and the beat to her song was similar to the beat used to dance the “Scarn.” As a huge Office fan myself, I loved this addition and thought it added just enough weirdness to break up the dark message of obsession in “my strange addiction.”
There are other clips of her and her brother laughing and joking around in-between the songs. I appreciate these little peeks into her recording process because, despite the serious nature of most of this album, they still had fun making it. It felt relaxed and like she really enjoyed creating the music she records. It also shows that just because you have all these painful things going on in your life, there are still times to laugh and have fun.
All in all, this album blew me away. I felt I could identify with the meaning behind several of the songs, yet others made me stop and realize I’d never quite thought of things that way before. I will say that with the mature content of these songs and music videos, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone younger than 14 and even then, make sure they understand artistic embellishment. I also would say if anyone is sensitive to discussions of depression, suicide, drugs or alcohol, or the horror genre in general, this album may not be for you. As a musician and songwriter myself, I enjoy this album because it’s something that hasn’t been done before. It’s beautiful, haunting, unique, and the control she had over her voice is incredibly impressive. As a Christian, though, my heart hurts that she feels like she’s suffering alone and doesn’t seem to believe that she has access to a God who loves her unconditionally.
The Bottom Line
With Billie Eilish's haunting vocals and twisted dark look at relationships and nightmares, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP WHERE DO WE GO? is a refreshing new addition to the pop music world. While the content may not be suitable for all, Billie is bringing to light issues that need to be discussed, even if it makes us uncomfortable. I enjoyed this album and look forward to more releases from Billie Eilish.