Billie Eilish — When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? ANALYSIS & REVIEW
It’s difficult for me to see what the big deal is about this album. If its biggest appeal is just the personality behind the work, which seems like the real unspoken layer here to an outsider like me, then I’ll simply acknowledge, again, that our collective artistic appetite as a culture is at a pretty shallow level. However, I’m not here to get into that. Let’s instead discuss the ins and outs of what makes this album a rather mediocre experience.
To start off, I’ll say that this work as a whole is by no means awful. The surface level thoughtfulness and artistry that exists here has a noticeable pull. That is most evident in the harmonic progressions, which aside from a couple of slow tempos with pedal tones that went nowhere, were never dull. Harmony was consistently each song’s most compelling aspect, using sensible tonic-dominant outlines with some rhythmically driven countermelodic basslines. With the textures being so thin and additive material at a minimum, this was a rather exposed and crucial element to each song, to which it mostly did a respectably fine job, although simplicity was its only strong attribute in general.
Eilish also makes some obvious, personable musical decisions that shape a rather unique atmosphere. First and foremost is her very soft dynamic vocal delivery. Her whisper-like tone gives off a very intimate and delicate feel. In isolation, that’s a feeling that carries some interest, as well as some emotional attachment. However, this is also a good jumping off point in discussing the negatives of this work. Eilish’s musicality was at least present and driving, but it wasn’t altogether successful.
The album’s biggest weakness is its awkward atmospheric opposites that exist in the timbre. What ended up being paired with the very quiet, delicate, intricate voice was most always a bombastic, restrictive, watered-down electronic dance foundation that was very aggressive regardless of tempo or dynamic. The sound derailed lots of songwriting potential by being overly poignant, superficial, and distracting. It gave little space for expressivity in form or phrase construction by its very calculated, formulaic, market-tested delivery. Synth layers were rather obnoxious and boring, giving little linear interest yet clogging the track with its distinctive timbre, trying to force energy into a place that needed none. The sound literally seemed like it was trying to put the listener to sleep and wake the listener up at the same time. It resulted in a lot of annoying mush, especially in the first half of the album.
So, I’ll say that even though Eilish’s vocals were a definitive personable touch, they were unable to give off their intended result and ended up being a poor decision in the long run, sounding very weak and unsupported. The same can be said from the opposite side; the backing instrumentation was ineffective in providing a vivid foundation for Eilish’s personal stylings. Attempts at being down to earth and relatable were thwarted by an unnecessary need to sound modern and popular with a very clean, overly-produced, corporate sound. One side had to change greatly in order for the timbre to be at all compelling. Instead, it was rather uncomfortable.
With the strong and rather misplaced emphasis on sound quality came an unfortunate diminished role for melody. I say unfortunate because, at times, there were glimpses of some rather decent sung lines that floated well on top of the easy harmony and a memorability factor to them in their short repeated patterns. Yet they were never fully expounded upon within the form and didn’t develop into anything more than ornamentation. Melody was super understated, disconnected, and sadly easy to ignore despite some nice moments. The lines themselves were never terribly abysmal, though lots of it fell victim to over-repetition within a bleak setting that needed better direction and transition material. Melodic lines never came to blossom in that regard.
Luckily, there were a couple moments of timbral variety that proved to work much better with the overall songwriting and atmospheric goals. This album was saved from being a total dud thanks to four songs: “when the party’s over”, and the final three tracks, especially “i love you”. And wouldn’t you know, what did those four songs do differently? Instead of using a very synthesized, plastic backdrop that conformed with standard guidelines of dance pop, they employed an acoustic-dominant timbre that matched the subtlety and quaint features of the solo voice and attempted mood. It was a much more genuine construction to use voice, piano, and guitar as primary instruments that could build an intimate, personal atmosphere, and that’s ultimately where melody and harmony were able to shine the most and have their biggest effects. That typically happens when authenticity is more apparent.
Now, it still wasn’t anything gorgeous and development of ideas was still rather nonexistent, but at least there was some cohesion and some room for melodies to really dictate the mood. The album actually ends on a rather respectable level, and if nothing else it shows what the rest of the work missed out on. Eilish shows a bit of potential here. In almost 1/3 of the album, she gets pretty far into coming up with a legitimately interesting song. In those standout tracks, she just needed more convincing points of interest through melodic shape, textural build, dynamic contrast, etc. She showed that she can write a song, now she just needs to write a really good song, which wasn’t quite there on this album. Also, I hope she forgets about whatever she was trying to accomplish with the first half, because that fell pretty flat.