While the discourse surrounding rock’s relationship with pop has been exclusively fixated on the former sliding into the latter, it’s definitely worth discussing how it works from the other way around. Sure, it’s less prevalent and given the unceasing hunt for crossovers to plug both gaps it seems less relevant than ever nowadays, but the general air compared to rock and especially metal is the there’s less of a sense of elitism with pop audiences. That doesn’t necessarily mean these acts are good, though, and considering how emphatically Halsey once convinced so many that her moonlighting as an alternative artist actually made it so, it would appear that the general rate of admission is little more than something minorly more transgressive than the bare minimum. So with that, here’s Billie Eilish, the latest dead-eyed edge-pop songstress off the production line who’s been going out of her way recently to prove how dark and foreboding her music can be with very little to substantiate those claims. Granted, the fact that she’s only seventeen makes that a bit more understandable, but with the swathes of hype that have branded her as dark-pop’s mainstream flag-bearer, it’s hard to really buy into that considering how much the edge has been emphasised over tangible musical output.
And thus, when it comes to this translating to a full album, it only highlights how lacking Eilish as an artist is. For as heavily as When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is being pushed as a paradigm-shifting experience from the most exciting new artist in the world, it’s really not that out of the ordinary, especially when compared to what Eilish has shown of herself in the past. Sure, it might be a bit more intimate and off-kilter than a lot of the mainstream peers that Eilish has unwittingly found herself rubbing shoulders with, but even saying that, it feels like the equivalent to pop as what trap and SoundCloud rap has become to hip-hop, the lo-fi, dense productions that are supposed to have an intrinsic excitement in that anyone can pull them off, but only feel more and more basic and uninspired every time they’re looked at more deeply. And when Eilish herself feels like the product of Halsey DNA accidentally mixed into the formula in whatever cloning facility these faceless trap artists are grown in, it leads to this album being just as shallow and unappealing as that may sound.
It’s worth looking at Eilish’s artistic persona to form that image, too. She clearly wants to present herself as the edgy, weirdo outsider, but also highlight how young, vulnerable and inexperienced that she is, and that creates a feedback loop to try and justify how blatantly tryhard it all is. The most obvious example is wish you were gay, where Eilish openly wishes that a guy is gay as an excuse for why he doesn’t reciprocate her feelings for him, a sentiment that’s blatantly tone-deaf, but does everything to play into both sides of her persona; it stirs up the controversy that modern pop feels it needs to thrive, but also plays to high-school insecurity to ensure all bases are covered as far as demographics are concerned. For as much as Eilish (and, perhaps more pertinently, the team around her) wants to portray herself as an answer to punk that breaks away from the sterility of modern pop, …Where Do We Go? feels just as micromanaged, especially when the dark, transgressive side is pushed right to the fore and appears just as unconvincing as one might expect from an artist thrust so deeply into the mainstream spotlight at such a young age. The notions of Eilish being the rebellious alpha-female on bad guy or the cold-blooded ruler of the scene on you should see me in a crown feel more than a bit artificial when rooted in such blatant and obvious imagery and scene-setting, but it’s all the good girls go to hell that crystallises an over-extension that really fails to pay off, conflating a calculated image with religious and satanic symbolism in a way that really does feel contrived and more than a bit laughable. Then there’s the more straight-laced, sensitive side, and while xanny and ilomilo have some interesting ideas about drug abuse that’s seen the loss of far too many of Eilish’s peers and friends, the melodrama that practically drips off of when the party’s over and listen before i go pretty much shatters any suspension of disbelief when the childish prostrating feels so well-telegraphed. And then there’s Eilish herself who doesn’t help in either case, with a vocal delivery halfway between Lana Del Rey’s glassy, deadened coos and wannabe-ghoulish ASMR that saps anything deeper than an average social media venting session and makes this album take all the more effort to simply get through.
To give Eilish at least some credit, when she’s given some decent production to work with, …Where Do We Go? at the very least develops a pulse, but it ultimately comes to the conclusion that some of these creative decisions feel wasted on an album like this. The bassline the sends bad guy surging forward is absolutely stellar, and the snarling whirrs and sharpening swords of you should see me in a crown and the modern pop bounce of my strange addiction draw from enough interesting sources to work, but they feel like outliers in an album that proudly wears its distanced, too-cool-to-care dejection on its sleeve, and it’s hard to think of how it could be less interesting than it is here. It doesn’t help that, by design, this sort of minimalist bedroom-pop production can struggle to get much footing as far as cogent melodies go, but with the unstable void of xanny or ilomilo’s rubbery thump that never really develops beyond its rather meagre foundations, it feels like yet another forced move to appear transgressive without any forethought of how it could turn out in the end. That means it could be worth commenting on the actual musical output of this album, but that can become exceedingly difficult when that amounts to little more than spare parts arranged into a ramshackle beat or slight variation on a goth-pop progression that produces very little to work with. On the flip side, there are the moments where Eilish just comes across as plain boring, be that when there’s even less instrumentation and a cushion of reverb and very slight piano seems to be her only backup on when the party’s over, when the combination of a ukulele and an excruciating vocal filter to, for some reason, sound like a small child expectedly grates on 8, or when fluffy, directionless acoustics or pianos form something of a basis for atmosphere to fill in any gaps on listen before i go and i love you. The one track that actually feels like a holistic jumping-off point is bury a friend; the low, insidious knock and Crooks’ creaking interjections foster a really compelling atmosphere that the minimalism can actually do justice for, and while Eilish’s performance isn’t much better than usual, the weary, worn-out flatness in her vocals actually feels earned here in what’s perhaps the one complete song on this entire album that can hit the vision marked out for it.
Of course, it’s not like that’s a widespread consensus; …Where Do We Go? is already getting mountains of acclaim, both critical and commercial, and on the whole, should be enough to keep the image of Eilish as a boundary-pushing redefinition of a modern pop star intact, even though it’s not much more than Lana Del Rey for people who get excited about Halloween. Even among the loosely-assembled collection of ‘alternative pop’ stars that serve as perennial critical darlings and yet rarely muster up anything all that compelling, Eilish feels like all flash and no substance, an artist coasting by on the skeletons of ideas that are far easier and more convenient to extrapolate aesthetically than musically. Thus, the music suffers, and while it’s not the worst thing in the world with a handful of moments that have potential, the hollowness and deliberate small scale feel like the come from a place of necessity rather than genuine creative desire, and while the short-term buzz from misinformed kids can serve as a boon, it’s not going to last. As much as Eilish seems to be on top of the world at this point, this is a sight that’s been seen countless times before, and a large-scale introduction as messy and unappealing as this is only going to make the already-inevitable crash come down even harder.
For fans of: Lorde, Lana Del Rey, Halsey
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ by Billie Eilish is out now on Darkroom / Interscope Records.