Do you hear what I’m doing here? How predictable, closed off, and stereotype reliant it is? My first rejection of Eilish was just a blunt reaction to brattiness as brattiness, a taking of the bait. As subsequent listens have convinced me that something very exciting is actually going on with Eilish, and as further listens have me worrying that the album might be my favorite of the year, it’s all making this mid-pack Millennial feel pretty old. Not just because of the teen signifiers Eilish uses. But because of the poise, the connections being drawn, and the sharp craft on display. How did no one make music like this before?
For what it’s worth, the comparison to Monster High is particularly unfair. Eilish—an L.A. showbiz daughter who, working with her producer brother, Finneas O’Connell, has earned millions of streams since 2016—is not plastic. Fashion-wise she goes for XL sweaters, and posture-wise she gives a good slump, which might help ensure that she won’t get railroaded as a sex-kitten object like the then-18-year-old Fiona Apple—an obvious influence—was. Generally, her edge is of the straight kind. Spiders, blood, and light S&M are motifs. But she rolls her eyes at drugs on “Xanny,” which imagines if an Amy Winehouse ballad depicted partying only as pathetic. The NC-17 teases of “Bad Guy,” the album’s opening banger, seem rather sarcastic, and the ending scene of its visual comes off like a fake-out regarding girl-on-video tropes.
Her voice—especially on her songs before this album—somewhat follows this decade’s trend of ineffably Swedish, chubby-bunny torch singing, heard in its most tolerable forms from Lorde and Ellie Goulding. But Eilish is an intelligent and unpredictable performer who, on When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, whisper-sings, whisper-raps, and whisper-hums more than she does anything that could be described as “crooning.” Cybernetic-soul vocal manipulation recalling Bon Iver and The Knife—and Kanye West’s knocking off of both—is omnipresent. O’Connell’s production follows in pleasing Yeezus style with sparse door-knock beats and jump-scare samples cut with bright, bent keyboard lines. If this all sounds a bit fussy and like ASMR bait, well, it is. But Eilish writes in melodies akin to nursery rhymes and ancient folk tunes. The balance of strange and simple usually works.
The early portions of the album trigger a sugar rush with fidgety tracks that are only a few clicks on the weirdness scale from the stuff of Taylor Swift’s Reputation. The romping is fun while it lasts, though some of the tunes feel interchangeable. Right now I’m finding myself stuck on replaying the lurching sing-along of “Wish You Were Gay,” which despite catching some Twitter flak is actually a decent corrective to the Katy Perry “Ur So Gay” tradition. Eilish isn’t shading a guy’s effeminacy; she’s just treating sexuality as no big deal by wishing that he had an ulterior motive for rejecting her. It’s not a groundbreaking sentiment, but it’s also not one that’s been expressed before in quite this manner, which makes it typical of Eilish’s relationship to originality.