- 29 Mar 19
Glimmering goth-pop from Hot Press-tipped teen prodigy
Eyebrows twitched and Twitter accounts combusted when David Grohl likened the hysteria around Los Angeles teenager Billie Eilish to the incendiary effect Nirvana had on fans early in their career. Grohl later felt obliged to clarify that he wasn’t comparing Eilish to Kurt Cobain, merely drawing parallels between their passionate followers. But there really was no need to set the record straight. Eilish isn’t a Gen Z Kurt Cobain. She is, however, a different stripe of streaming age pop star: darker, scarier, far stranger than her peers.
It’s a little over a year since Hot Press interviewed Eilish and anointed her a face to watch. Half a dozen or so singles have followed, in addition to videos in which she variously let a spider play on her tongue and wept blue tears.
Yet only a handful of these songs have made it to When We All Fall Asleep… The rest were presumably excluded on account of not chiming with the record’s overarching obsession with the grey spaces between waking and unconsciousness. Eilish has in interviews expressed befuddlement with the basic concept of sleep – you lie down and then the lights go out – and the album metastasises that idea.
So we hear her plunge down a baroque rabbit hole on ‘Bury A Friend’ – in the best sense Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ reimagined as a found-footage horror pop. And there’s a terrifying flight of the imagination on ‘You Should See Me Wear A Crown’ – a strutting symphony that sees the 17 year-old play make-believe with pop star imperiousness.
Given that Eilish has released a run of killer tracks across the past several years, it’s a surprise that her debut contains its share of filler. The back end is especially weak and you wonder if she has gone too far in calibrating for a more mainstream audience. The nadir in that respect is ‘I Love You’, an acoustic simper-fest about as compelling as its hackneyed title (I recommend you quietly skip it and instead slap on the Air Atlantica Remix from her Six Feet Under EP).
Still, When We Fall Asleep… is often remarkable – especially considering it is essentially the work of two people, Eilish and her older brother Finneas O’Connell (which sort of makes them the Carpenters of Gen Z fright-pop). ‘When The Party Over’ is Tori Amos goth-pop for post-Millennials. And ‘All The Good Girls Go To Hell’ is an electro Exocet powered by squidgy keyboards and Eilish’s shrapnel coo. This is shoot-to-chill pop with the safety catch off – a tour de force back lit with a blue streak of ferocity. At its best, it’s astonishing.