The bittersweet songs of Eilish are edgy, dark and glaringly amateurish
The Santa Clara
April 4, 2019
Music makes waves, but Billie Eilish’s new album may have you wondering: “Where did they go?”
That’s because, underneath the technopolish and crisp sheen of the production, the in-your-face titled “WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?” lacks a movable core. The 17-year-old Eilish projects her emotions in the album, but they don’t go anywhere.
This lack of movement is on full display in “bury a friend.” Dressed up with some audiophiliac, clicky percussion and a propulsive bass, the single plods along, but the lyrics reveal a disturbing case of cognitive dissonance. While Eilish illuminates the dark crevices of her mind, her intonation rarely matches the apparent agony of the material.
In this disturbed track, Eilish clearly grapples with some inner demons, at one point even remarking “I wanna end me,” but her voice doesn’t even rise above her breathy, whispery style at this point. She speaks the line as if she’s reaching out from the inside of a giant aquarium tank. It’s the peak of post-millennial detachment, and it’s unaffecting.
And speak is the perfect description for her singing style throughout the album. Her words don’t float so much as they hover. The lyrics die beside her breath. Of course, nothing is inherently wrong with this approach, but the pain underpinning her cry, “Bury a friend, I wanna end me,” can hardly hit the audience if it barely moves past the confines of the studio.
But that’s not to say that Eilish and her producers don’t recognize this. The horror-movietrailer stingers and smashed glass sounds of “bury a friend” and the jagged distortion effects of tracks like “bad guy” complement the lyrics even while Eilish’s vocals maintain their cool detachment from the material. That said, these digital effects are no replacement for the motion of the human voice.
Contrast any of the tracks in Eilish’s new album with Grimes’ “Nightmusic” from her “Visions” album. Grimes’ backing tracks are dirtier; her lyrics more abstract. But when her voice ascends, singing “I’ve been hard to run up in the snow / You’ve been liking anywhere to go,” none of this matters. Her voice alone conveys the emotion. At this moment, you get the sense she could say anything, but her swelling intonation carries her power and pain.
Even Eilish’s decidedly more emotional tracks, like “wish you were gay,” suffer from her voice’s lack of movement. In that track, both her volume and expressiveness boil and seem more free to move than in the rest of the album, but she’s still constricted by the excessively clinical precision of the production. Her notes last for perfect, mathematical durations, and she can’t laugh or pause or react to herself. In fact, the song actually boasts some laughter, but it’s of the canned, sampled type.
These technical constraints on the production indeed create a precise and polished listening experience, but they leave no room for motion and experimental expressiveness (outside of the diminishing returns of the toodetached style). As a result, you could rearrange the album’s songs in any order with no noticeable change to the story of the piece. With inhibited emotional movement, there’s no emotional trajectory to mess up.
But the album still packs in promises. It’s not hard on the ears, and Eilish carries melodies, a welcome sound in today’s musicscape. Also, her sparse instrumentation remains clean while still allowing the instruments to speak, enhancing the album’s ability to engage the ears.
Especially in “xanny” and “i love you,” she foregrounds these strengths and demonstrates a knack for some much-needed reflexivity.
If only she’d react to it with her voice, rather than through the detachment of a computer.
Contact Brandon Schultz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.