Billie Eilish’s debut album is an exercise in comic horror. On When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, out since March, the 17-year-old experimental pop star combines downtempo electropop and SoundCloud-style murk with the silliest and most familiar of gothic tropes — screams, blood spatters, hearses, spiders, demons, walking on glass. Several recent pop tendencies coalesce in Eilish’s music: the moody introspection, the fascination with death, the electronic simulation of lo-fi mess. The camp humor is her own.
Eilish first surfaced with her fabulously titled Don’t Smile at Me EP (2017), which included the lead single “Ocean Eyes,” a slowly exhaled puff of air lined with pop surfaces. Over the next year and a half, she saturated pop radio with a stream of singles that sound strange alongside conventional pop: “When I Was Older,” “You Should See Me in a Crown,” and the Khalid collaboration “Lovely.” Quietude and mope are established devices, but seething menace is not.
Here, finally, was a pop equivalent to the hushed crackle and morbidity associated with SoundCloud rap. Ski Mask the Slump God and Juice Wrld have tweaked emo conventions like the sob and the scream to produce music of numbness and terror, of being lost in your own head while wanting to drop off the face of the earth. In retrospect that sensibility meshes perfectly with a pop approach where breathy vocals scraped against skeletal beats generate friction. Except for Ski Mask — a goofy, loud, glorious anomaly — most such rappers have a tendency to vanish behind tears and spittle, cloaked in solemnity. Eilish is to SoundCloud rap as, say, Bryan Ferry’s cover of “Sympathy for the Devil” is to the original, in which a cackling, vampiric singer both deflates and heightens what’s supposed to be a serious showdown with evil.
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? blends a number of diffuse elements — streamlined electropop, trap snare drums, campfire strumming, nursery rhymes, distortions and splinters, and a deep and buzzy bass sound, like it was turned up too loud and blew out a speaker — to create something new. This music aims to convey fragility, teetering on the edge of a precipice; it thrashes and jitters around like a mechanical wind-up spider.
“Bad Guy” hops around over fuzzy bass, electronic handclaps, quivery percussive rattle, and a keyboard melody that could accompany the chase scene in a spy movie; she alters her voice to sound creepier and creakier while intoning, “I’m the bad guy,” before suddenly perking up and exclaiming, “Duh!” On “You Should See Me in a Crown” she juxtaposes unassumingly lilting verses against a chorus whose jagged synthesizers zoom in suddenly — as does her promise to wreak havoc on the world, turning “Watch me make em bow one by/one by/one” into a sticky pop hook by adding stress (and electronic splatter) in weird places.
The elements of children’s music — plinking xylophones, strummed ukulele, singsong taunts — appropriately situate these dramas in the realm of childhood fantasy, where grandiosity, absurdity, and terror coexist naturally. By imagining herself as a cartoon villain, a figure of evil and chaos, she counteracts the demonization of women by embodying it. This character has absolute power in both political and romantic realms, and over death.
In “All the Good Girls Go to Hell,” she makes a deal with the devil to survive climate apocalypse (“Once the water starts to rise/and heaven’s out of sight/she’ll want the devil on her team”). Meanwhile, the sinister keyboard drop and honking bass blasts shudder and thud, propelled forward by rising tides of electric distortion. At the end of the song, she sings back the hook in an exaggerated nasal voice, mocking the whole thing; what started as the end of the world ends as a ditty.
Like many albums preoccupied with death, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? captivates thanks to the relationship between sound and time. In life, moments can’t be replicated; in music they can. Throughout the album, she uses repetition to spark pop pleasure in a spooky hall of mirrors. “Bury a Friend,” sung from the perspective of the monster under her bed, weaves rhythmic clicks, metallic scrapes, intermittent sampled shrieks, climactic keyboard vacuuming noises, and Eilish’s murmured singing into a percussive tapestry, an amalgam of sonic eggshells and broken glass, simultaneously soothing and disquieting: the soft plinks lull, but the shrieks jolt you out of the trance. The song’s multiple repeated verses circle round and round, scurrying all over the place but going nowhere. You keep waiting for the central chorus (“What do you want from me? Why don’t you run from me?”) to pop up, as it’s her eeriest and most childish nursery rhyme, but it keeps appearing in startling, unexpected places, like the fright in a haunted house.
Although Eilish avoids big choruses and conventional hooks, she finds bliss points in smaller moments, accumulating a slew of blats and crunches and whispers. There’s a sense that these songs are assembled from a thousand tiny little hooks, clicking into rickety constructions. While the fragility is necessary — even campier, more exaggerated music would retain the humor but not the terror — some songs could be sprightlier, as “8” and “I Love You” rely too obviously on the conventional association between acoustic plucking and stark sadness. The album’s momentum springs from the precise timing of discrete sounds, slapstick effects, sudden shock noises, relentless pitter-patter, that together don’t conjure much of a rhythmic throughline. A constant beat would imply permanence and undo the unease, the sense that a song might shatter before it’s over. Such music demands close attention, though; play it in the background and you’ll miss the fun.
Yet pop radio abounds with music that sounds pretty in the background and vanishes upon close inspection. Why shouldn’t Eilish provide the inverse? When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? demonstrates how the language of camp captures grand, silly emotional states that would scan as sentimental if depicted straightforwardly. Instead, Eilish’s maudlin romanticism seizes the garish out of sheer joy. She’ll wear any mask she pleases.