Billie Eilish is a 17 year-old homeschooled choir singer turned pop music prodigy. And she’s every bit as awesomely messed up as that pedigree implies: She’s the demon spawn of Lana Del Rey’s California dreams, who first compared a sweetheart’s gaze to napalm skies on her arresting 2016 single gone viral, “Ocean Eyes.” She later entertained fantasies of killing her friends on the guitar n’B song “Bellyache,” and warded off new ones throughout the rest of her 2017 EP, Don’t Smile at Me.
Yet, the smirking candor of her music sucks you in anyway: at the onset of her noirish major label debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? she offers a generous, audible slurp; “I’ve taken out my Invisalign,” she says. alluding to a specific brand of braces. “And this is the album!” Dental guard: off. Fangs: out.
Recorded with the help of her older brother Finneas in their family home in Los Angeles, it’s an album full of dressed-down avant-pop with D.I.Y. immediacy and intimacy that can still hold its own amid Top 40 maximalists like Ariana Grande and Halsey. Eilish’s sound is hyper-modern, but still feels classic; evoking another Billie in history, she sets the jazz-aware swing in her vocals over skittering trap beats and doo-wop piano asides. Yet for reasons that are unclear — perhaps her taste for the macabre, or her aesthetic as a tomboy par excellence — Eilish’s roguish pop has lead to a double life on the male-heavy rock and alternative charts.
Eilish claims she endured recurring night terrors while recording the album — recalling visions, some real and some imagined, of abductions, severed heads, school shootings and Los Angeles in flames. When she poses the question, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? it’s a personal one: to make peace with the twisted, dystopian Gotham that’s become her reality, where there is no Batman to save her, Eilish writes herself into characters who toe the line between good-bad and cartoonishly evil. She recalls DC Comics ass-kicker Harley Quinn in the slinky track “Bad Guy,” playing a comic book villain in a voice that suggests Lorde’s rascal kid sister: “I’m a make-your-momma-sad type, make-your-girlfriend-mad type, might-seduce-your-dad type,” she boasts — and with a single, sardonic “Duh,” she just narrowly gets away with it. (“That’s what I’ve been doing recently,” she told Rolling Stone last month: “Honing in on people’s fears.”)
More formidable is the sawing dubstep crawl of “You Should See Me In a Crown,” inspired by the villain Moriarty in the BBC show Sherlock. The song is matched in menace by the Takashi Murakami-animated video, in which Eilish sprouts eight legs and chomps a city to smithereens. Yet she turns that nightmarish girl monster against herself in “Bury A Friend,” adopting a skittish iambic pentameter as she repeats “I wanna end me” over a muted goth-R&B throb. In the 20 years since its inception, never has a teen pop star so gone dark — closely paralleling the anti-pop Boogeyman of Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar.
In spite of her most dastardly intentions, Eilish can’t help but draw back the curtain at times and let you in. Take the glimmer of sincerity in the high-drama ballad “When the Party’s Over,” where she painstakingly wishes to be more than a party of one; or her latest single, “Wish You Were Gay.” Lest the queer-baiting title steer you off track, Eilish means to profess her love for a boy whose lack of reciprocity she finds suspect. (One is always free to choose their own adventure, of course.) But in lieu of accepting that he’s just not that into her, Eilish resorts to a conclusion that’s easier on the ego: “To spare my pride,” she sings, “To give your lack of interest an explanation/I’m not your type/Maybe I’m not your preferred sexual orientation.”
Yet for every time she lets her guard down, she bounds back coolly, with a strategically distancing, impish snark. In “Xanny” she says a hard no to drugs, if only out of respect for friends she’s lost to them: “I can’t afford to love someone who isn’t dying by mistake/In Silverlake,” she sings with the kind of wry, eye-rolling detachment most strongly fermented in adolescence. It’s moments like these when Eilish isn’t at all someone you want to fear; she’s someone you want to root for.