In a visually dazzling pay-per-view livestream Saturday, Billie Eilish played something close to her usual set. But she was far from being on her usual set, as ingenious digital effects turned her soundstage into a peaceful starfield, the lair of a giant spider, the bottom of the ocean, a bucolic cartoon forest and a news footage-filled dystopia of protests and climate-change catastrophes.
Environmental wreckage in particular was weighing heavy on Eilish’s mind, as the singer’s between-songs commentary had her alternating get-out-the-vote messages with save-the-planet pleas.
After the footage of forest fires and melting icecaps during “All the Good Girls Go to Hell” ended with Eilish in front of the words “No Music on a Dead Planet,” she urged watching fans to “please, vote people. We have 10 days til this election. It is is so important that you vote, especially if you’re young, because we’re the ones with futures — unless you don’t vote and we all die. But I cannot stress enough, vote as early as you can. I voted last week… We’ve gotta do something, because the world is dying and people are dying and Trump is the worst.”
Later, in ending the hour-long webcast, Eilish said, “I hope that I can see you soon. I can’t even tell you how bad I wish I could be on tour. During quarantine I think I realized that the only place I’ve ever felt myself, like I belong, is in front of you guys and with you guys… That will happen one day. If we vote the orange man out, maybe we’ll get to see each other again. I’m literally not even joking at all.”
There were no musical surprises for anyone who caught any of the singer’s pre-pandemic performances, aside from the expected addition of three singles she’s released in the last year, “No Time to Die,” “Everything I Wanted” and “My Future.” Per her usual concert performances, Eilish was joined by a drummer, Andrew Marshall; brother Finneas on guitar, bass or keyboards at any given moment; and familiar backing tracks filling in the rest from “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” the closest thing to a consensus pick in the music world for the best album of the last few years.
Familiarity did not figure into the design at all, though, as Moment Factory and director Tarik Mikou used elaborate effects to surround Eilish and her two companions with a ridiculously deceptive depth of field that often made the modest soundstage they were playing on feel several times its size, when they weren’t traveling to the ocean depths or outer space.
Simplicity was the hallmark at the start, as “Bury a Friend” — transposed from its former place at the end of her shows to the very beginning — took place in a basic, fuzzy, red environment akin to photographic dark-room lighting. The FX were ramped up for “You Should See Me in a Crown,” which had an enormous arachnid menacing the trio — who, to their credit, did not seem overly concerned by being nearly impaled by its digital legs.
The brightly lit, simply staged “Xanny” focused on a single shot of Eilish on a bench, with the camera zooming in and then retreating to a position that seemed dozens of feet further back than the soundstage actually could have allowed. “I Love You” had Eilish and Finneas seated together for the more intimate ballad, as usual, except in this case perched atop a skyscraper-sized monolith fixed in space with the Milky Way and the moon emerging as backdrops.
Perhaps most impressive were the shots that had cameras seemingly zooming in between stage props that existed only in the digital realm, whether it was the shots that came in from between the trees in the animated forest setting of “My Future”; amid the undulating seaweed of the already underwater-sounding “ilomilo,” which had Eilish and band playing from atop an ocean reef; or from pillars as gigantic walls came crashing down in her James Bond theme, “No Time to Die.”
A subtler but possibly no less complicated effect had Eilish singing to a huge, towering wall of watching fans who were singing along with “Everything I Wanted.” If the pictured viewers were as live as they appeared to be, they all did a remarkable job of keeping their cool about making it onto the broadcast and focusing on lyrics instead of mania. A return look at fans after the performance ended showed a healthy percentage sporting the au courant fashion accoutrement: an “I Voted” sticker.
Introducing Finneas early on, Eilish said they “make all of our music together, as you know. And we’re making an album. That’s another discussion. That’s for later.” (“Later” meaning not in this broadcast, as the subject of new music did not arise again.)
For all the grandiosity of the production design, there was little added pomp to the performance itself, as Eilish’s friendly chatter kept the visually elevated proceedings from ever seemingly remotely pretentious or all that far afield, in spirit, from one of her normal shows. The sense of casualness amid the major FX was reinforced by the low-volume applause from what sounded like a couple of dozen onlookers. “The people you’re hearing are the crew, and it’s such a good vibe in here, even though it’s an empty room,” she explained.
What’s not particularly casual is how effortlessly expert Eilish’s vocals were, as expected on the two usual standout ballads, “When the Party’s Over” and “I Love You,” the gorgeously featherweight “Ocean Eyes” or the jazzier recent “My Future,” but also the melodramatic “No Time to Die” — her Oscar chances for which will have to live or die another day, now that the Bond film has been pushed back into the next calendar year. When Eilish can command that much delicate, preternatural vocal prowess and giant spiders, too, she’s just about got it all.