Less than two months out from the last Grammy Awards, it may feel a little early to be prognosticating about the next, but we now have one 2019 release that should be a shoo-in for an album of the year nomination. It’s “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” the full-length debut from Billie Eilish, the 17-year-old who so far has been mostly spoken of in terms of breakout stardom and sales projections and outsized adolescent phenomena. Trust us: This album is too good for teenagers. Well, all right — they’re welcome to it, too — but you don’t have to be under 21, or 71, to delight in real-dealness when you hear it.
There’s something a little bit hilarious about referring to an album by someone who just turned 17 four months ago as “long-awaited,” but, funny or not, this one really is, since Eilish signed with Interscope several years ago and has been dribbling out singles for long enough that it seems like she should at least be in grad school by now. Those singles have been different enough from one another that it hasn’t always been easy to get a picture of what kind of artist she’s going to be, other than one with an alienated-looking pout that’s probably endeared her all the more to kids as it puts off their parents. With “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” things come more into focus — but not too sharply into focus, because Eilish does contain 17-year-old multitudes. She’s funny, depressed, wicked, a wallflower, aggro, sweetly vulnerable… and, luckily for her line of work, kind of ridiculously crafty, too.
One thing Eilish has learned at 17 (or 16, actually, when she made this album) that it usually takes other singer-songwriters a lot longer to pick up is the value of whispering. She sings a great deal of “When We All Fall Asleep…” in a hush, and you have to laugh and marvel at the notion that there’s a nation of youth cocking their ears to listen more closely to someone as quiet as Eilish. Mind you, she’s pretty capable of raising her voice into a snarl, or into a more pronounced, nuanced jazziness, which you sense her deciding whether to fully embrace yet or not in real time. But her instinct is for intimacy — and her producer-co-writer-older-bro, Finneas O’Connell, is a champ at knowing how to frame her breathy pull with a mix of somber acoustic sounds and blaringly fun EDM effects.
“Old soul” is a cliché that kind of goes without saying here. But having said it, bratty also applies too, here and there, in a good way. Any preconception you might have about Eilish being one of those teen prodigies who’s determined to sound old before her time immediately flies out the window with the opening track, which consists of about 15 seconds of studio banter that has Eilish laughing and announcing, “I have taken out my Invisalign, and this is the album.” (Hey, old people get Invisalign, too, so she shouldn’t have lost anybody yet.) From there, it’s into the real opener, “Bad Guys,” the implied naughtiness of which seems like a recipe for precocious disaster. But even this declaration of sin is smart and kind of hilarious, as, over almost nothing but a bass and a kick drum and some very amplified finger snaps, she teases a “just can’t get enough guy / chest always so puffed guy.” There’s a self-aware shout-out to her “mommy,” who “likes to sing along with me / But she won’t sing this song if she / Reads all the lyrics.” (There are some pretty clever sub-rhymes here for someone who’s still proudly saying “mommy” in a lyric.)
The funny thing is, the very next song, “Xanny,” is a track any mom or dad will love, because it’s anti-drug, in an amusing, WTF-is-wrong-with-my-contemporaries kind of way. Finneas pans her voice back and forth and makes her sound a little druggy, ironically, for a number that’s about being the designated driver and only alert introvert in a crowd. “I’m in their second hand smoke / Still just drinking canned coke / I don’t need a Xanny to feel better,” she sings, and rather than coming off preachy, the track is so intoxicating it could inspire a generation of college sophomores to check into Betty Ford. It’s just a little bit jokey, but in a lush, nearly Beatle-esque bridge, she sings, “I can’t afford to love someone who isn’t dying by mistake / In Silverlake.” A lot of 37-year-olds would have given their right pinkie to write a couplet that legitimately tragicomic.
“You Should See Me in a Crown,” a song inspired by a line uttered by the Moriarty character on “Sherlock,” is the closest she comes to some sort of brash dubstep, with lyrics that are clearly meant to embody some kind of evil and a track that’s going to fuel a lot of we-are-the-champions fantasies anyway. “Wish You Were Gay” has equal potential to be misunderstood — Eilish is just expressing the common teen sentiment that she wishes the dude who doesn’t dig her had a better, born-this-way explanation for it, so it’s no “Ur So Gay.” It’s here on the album that a bit of jazz starts to creep in: Could that actually be a standup bass between the bass drops? Eilish even starts to sound like her presumed namesake, Billie Holliday, for a few seconds, then pulls back as she probably starts to worry about rock critics pointing it out.
Weirdness is a welcome guest throughout an album that feels like the product of an insular family sensibility. Probably the most conventional pop song on the album is the frisky “My Strange Addiction” — which really wouldn’t be strange at all if Eilish didn’t kind of de-sex-ify it by repeatedly throwing in random sound bites from season 7/episode 11 of “The Office,” for no quickly apparent reason. This is also the song where she sings: “Shoulda taken a break, like an Oxford comma.” (Okay, bringing up the Oxford comma in an erotically suggestive song is pretty sexy.)
She and Finneas layer in sound effects for far less funny purposes later in the album. Faint sirens and the sound of the streets heard from atop a building appear at the beginning of and throughout “Listen Before I Go,” and the gentle piano accompaniment and the return of some jazz phrasing let you think you might be in for a torch song. In fact, the torch she’s carrying there is for life itself; she’s singing from the point of view of someone who’s about to end it all. It’s the type of song you want to describe as harrowing, except Eilish is much too sympathetic to her narrator’s fatalism to set the song up as being overtly cautionary. It wouldn’t be surprising if she catches some flack along the way from listeners who think it’s too lulling a portrayal of self-destructive thoughts — but you’d be hard pressed to find many other recent pop songs that feel as directly reported from the young-and-despondent front as this one does.
Eilish takes the album to the ledge but doesn’t leave it there, ending it — almost — with her most hopeful and gorgeous choice, “I Love You,” an acoustic guitar-based ballad that is about determinedly trying not to be in love and to convince the other party that he isn’t, either…. and not doing a very good job of that. She hasn’t exactly imaged herself as the kind of girl who leaves her heart on her record sleeve, but it’s all there, here.
But because that would be too sweet a place to land, the record ends with some spot-on cleverness in the form of “Goodbye,” which takes her already-trademark stacked vocal layers and turns them into something nearly worthy of the Beatles’ “Because,” while running in reverse chronological order through the album’s preceding tracks and borrowing one line from each, for a reverse-overture coda. She will leave her audience with a dry eye in the house, after all, but she can’t stop sounding beautiful, even when she’s getting back into her heady space.
With all its moments of distortion and attitude, tempered by sheer loveliness, and rude and emotional songs about night terrors and daydreams, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” feels like a rock ‘n’ roll album, even if there’s virtually nothing on it that sounds like rock music. And although the jazziness is more latent than blatant in this sonic blast, she hasn’t done any disgrace to the name her parents gave her, either. Attention, 2020 Grammys: The future still isn’t quite done being female.