Okay, since I will apparently be spending at least part of this review in “cranky old man” mode, let’s just jump right in: What is up with the freaky typography on this album? The album title, at least on any streaming service, is in ALL CAPS LIKE IT’S SHOUTING AT YOU. But the songs are totally bereft of any capitalization at all, like teeny tiny whispers.
I guess it’s fitting, though, because Billie Eilish herself never actually seems to put her lungs behind her singing voice. The vast majority of the album is whispered, spoken, mumbled, or sung in the quietest itty bitty tones. It’s like she recorded the entirety of the vocals late at night in her house, trying not to wake anybody. On the occasion her vocals have any power at all, it’s because they were multi-tracked or layered in with instruments. Most of the time, though, she just sounds heavily tranquilized, or maybe just resigned and indifferent. Or possibly super depressed. Hell, on “listen before i go” she seriously sounds like she’s in the middle of suicide via barbiturate overdose.
I have to say, this vocal style really did not work for me. I mostly found it frustrating where I didn’t find it annoying. In the most irritating moment on the album, the beginning of “8” takes the usual Eilish whisper, pitch-shifts it higher (I guess so she’ll sound like she’s actually 8?), and accompanies it with a frickin’ ukulele. I can only speculate that it is a sinister experiment to find out if people can actually die from an overdose of twee. I’m no enemy of spoken vocals — I’m a huge Lou Reed fan, for example — and the occasional whisper or sotto voce moment in a song can be very powerful, but stretched out to the length of an entire album, to the total exclusion of any full-throated singing, it feels to me like both a pretentious affectation and an intentional retreat from power.
And yet, I am apparently out of step, because the world has gone bananas for Billie Eilish. This album went platinum, debuted at #1, topped the Billboard year-end chart for 2019, and spawned six top 40 singles. It won the Album of the Year Grammy, “bad guy” got both Song and Record of the Year, and Eilish herself won Best New Artist. “bad guy” was a #1 song, dethroning the record-breaking “Old Town Road”. Eilish herself has broken tons of records — the youngest artist to do a whole bunch of things, the first artist born in the 2000s to have a #1 album, 15 billion (not a made-up number) streams on Spotify. Et cetera.
So while I find that her performance on this album is mostly not my cup of tea, I can definitely applaud Eilish for some things. First, I love that she defies the sex-kitten mold for young female pop stars. I look at some other big female artists from 2019 — Halsey, Ariana Grande, Cardi B — and have to laugh imagining them in Eilish’s baggy wardrobe, sans makeup. Even Taylor Swift and Lizzo, both of whom manage a subversive approach to their sexualization, aren’t avoiding it entirely. Eilish takes the focus off her body and puts it on her music.
Second, she writes her own songs — well, in collaboration with her brother, Finneas O’Connell. (Eilish’s last name is technically also O’Connell, but for clarity I’m calling her Eilish and him O’Connell, or Finneas.) That’s not just a rarity for current female pop stars, it’s a rarity for all current pop stars. Most of the biggest songs of 2019 were written by songwriting teams. Even when the artist is included in the team, they’re usually buttressed by a squad of professional writers behind the scenes. Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” (#9 overall for 2019) has no less than thirty credited songwriters. In contrast, every song but two on WHEN WE ALL credits the O’Connell siblings as songwriters, and the remaining two were written by just Finneas.
In addition, Finneas does the production, which is the best part of this album. As I said above, sometimes the production steps in to buttress Eilish’s vocal performance, which helps a lot. Consistently, O’Connell provides slinky beats, clean synths, and a powerful bottom end that compensates for Eilish’s feather-light vocals, and can even sometimes make them sound menacing. In the record’s best moments, they even manage to leaven the teen angst with some humor, as in the goofy “!!!!!!!” or the Office sound clips interspersed through “my strange addiction.” Of course, there are some missteps too — how many times can Eilish’s voice be processed to make it sound like she’s singing through a box fan? (Answer: way more than one, and even one is verging on too many.) Overall, though, I don’t think I’m a Billie Eilish fan, but this record may have made me a Finneas O’Connell fan.
It’s not exactly novel to make it big in the music business as a teenager. There’s a tradition going back to Elvis, winding its way through Stevie Wonder, Kate Bush, Fiona Apple, Taylor Swift, Lorde, and lots of others. (I’m deliberately omitting teeny-bopper fare like boy bands, Tiffany, etc. — Eilish isn’t part of that trend-line.) To my ears, Billie Eilish mostly suffers by comparison to these other artists. But like them, she has plenty of time in front of her to grow, and I hope she grows into an artist who lets herself use her full vocal range. Still, after listening to WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, I confess I find myself more interested in what Finneas O’Connell is going to do next.