On her big-league debut, Billie Eilish makes a bold entrance into the mainstream, leaving the fringes behind to embrace her role as an anti-pop star for the disaffected Gen Z masses. With a youthful, hybrid blend that incorporates elements of indie electronic, pop, and hip-hop (assisted by brother Finneas O'Connell), When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? captures the late-2010s zeitgeist by throwing conventional boundaries to the wind and fully committing to its genre-blurring self. Like Lorde's devilish little sister, Eilish delivers her confessional lyrics in hushed bursts of breath, at times dirge-like in their sedateness and otherwise intensely threatening in their creepiness. Beneath the calculated image, she's a highly relatable kid -- not yet of legal voting age at the time of the album's release -- and an avatar for an audience that deals with similar mental health struggles and growing pains.
From the opening line of hilarious opener "!!!!!!!," Eilish makes it clear that she is just like you, the listener, goofing off in the studio with her brother while she's supposed to be recording her major-label debut. As endearing as it is obnoxious, the track sets the tone and, from there, the album is a thrill. Bouncing from infectious dance-pop highs to tender, restrained lows, Eilish manages effortless cohesion, even within the span of a single song. "Bad Guy" throbs like the cavernous echo heard outside the club, sparking to life with a K-pop brightness before descending with a bellowing trap drop, while "All the Good Girls Go to Hell" rides a playful bass strum that manages to pull some G-funk effects into its orbit. The meme-worthy "My Strange Addiction" makes the inspired choice to interpolate dialogue from the "Threat Level Midnight" episode of The Office (which had already wrapped its entire televised run before Eilish even turned 12), all while managing to be one of the sleekest standouts on the album. Other highlights include the hypnotic minimalist single "Bury a Friend," an unnerving nightmare that is as disturbing as it is addictive; the twisted funhouse electro-pop "Ilomilo"; and "You Should See Me in a Crown," a spiritual descendant of Lorde's "Royals" that finds Eilish making a power grab to rule the one-horse "nothing town" instead of simply complaining about it. While empowering and vulnerable messages bleed through every song, the quieter moments allow her introspection to take the spotlight, especially on the restrained trio that closes the album. She contemplates ending her life on the swelling, piano-centric "Listen Before I Go" and offers an uncomfortably uncertain conclusion with "Goodbye," but it's the swelling storm of "I Love You," a heartbreaking acoustic beauty, that pegs Eilish as something more than a spooky, scare-the-parents gimmick. Indeed, with When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, she demonstrates that she can do it all, hinting at a bright future that could truly go in any direction, as messy and hopeful as youth can get. ~ Neil Z. Yeung