Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell recently became the first musician born in the 21st century to score a number one single in the United States. Eilish had already been building a profile for a few years, debuting on SoundCloud and building a following through singles and EPs. Her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, was released in March 2019, after she’d already built an ardent following.
Eilish’s intensely personal and dark music seems like an unlikely fit for the top of the charts, but she’s connected with disaffected teenagers. In an era of careful PR and image cultivation, Eilish is refreshingly individual. Her songs are written about the night terrors and lucid dreams that she experiences. Eilish is charismatic and her vocals are engrossing.
There are parallels in Eilish’s teen angst and bedroom poetry to Lorde’s 2014 breakout Pure Heroine, but Eilish’s music is rawer. She’s supported by her brother Finneas O’Connell, formerly a child actor on Glee. O’Connell supplies the instrumentation, and When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was recorded in his bedroom studio. Often the instrumentation is minimal, with O’Connell just playing a single instrument at once – the prominent instrument on number one single ‘Bad Guy’ is the synthesizer bassline.
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? captures a range of moods – the album closes with pretty and vulnerable songs like the acoustic guitar on ‘I Love You’ and piano of ‘Listen Before I Go’. Despite the bedroom setting and use of acoustic instruments, there’s an industrial harshness to songs like ‘Xanny’. ‘My Strange Addiction’ presents Eilish’s skewed take on pop, accompanied by samples from The Office.
I’m clearly not the target audience for Eilish’s debut album, but there’s enough happening musically in her songs and productions to draw me in. She has an off-beat magnetism that’s allowed one of her insular songs to top the charts. Eilish is an important figure for legions of youthful fans, and she’s one of the most influential voices in popular music.