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Billie Eilish’s debut album, ‘When we fall asleep, where do we go?’: philosophical or sadistic?

Updated: May 8, 2019

The album is basically what happens when you fall asleep…For me, in every song in the album there's sleep paralysis. There's night terrors, nightmares, lucid dreams…all things you can’t understand, all things that you can’t explain.

Billie Eilish


 


*This article contains references to self-harm and suicide.*



I feel a little torn by Billie Elish’s new album.

The haunting harmonies, beautiful production, and philosophical lyrics are mesmerising. And there are some pretty catchy tunes in there too.

But it’s hard to ignore the sense of darkness that pervades this album. Just watching the music video for ‘bury a friend’ (above) is enough to give you nightmares. I guess it's not surprising considering this album was inspired by Eilish's own night terrors and experiences of sleep paralysis.


Her lyrics are an intriguing mixture of cryptic references, surreal imagery, philosophical questions, and thoughts about everyday teenage life: the parties, the drugs, the heartbreak. As she explains in an interview, “it’s not that the whole album is a bad dream”. Eilish draws us into a strange world that is both literal and metaphorical, ordinary and extraordinary, based on real life experience and Eilish’s wild imagination.

Indeed, this is an album full of contradictions. Eilish peppers the album with little in-jokes and moments of humour, (just check out the knee-wobbling that goes on in the ‘bad guy’ video….) but she also sings about depression and death. Her sarcastic ‘bad guy’ persona stands in contrast to the thoughtful creativity and emotional depth displayed in some of her lyrics.

For teenagers (and adults) who are bored of saccharine pop tunes and highly sexualised stars, Eilish offers an exciting, new kind of teenage rebelliousness. She seems totally confident in her bold choice of colourful outfits, with her signature blue hair and baggy clothes. She’s too cool to bother capitalising her song titles (to the horror of the older, more grammatically correct amongst us), and she’s totally chilled about letting spiders crawl out of her mouth in the video for ‘you should see me in a crown’. However she also achieves a kind of intimacy with her audience as she sings about her deepest fears and feelings in songs like ‘bury a friend’ and ‘i love you’. It’s a strangely attractive combination.

Even the title of the album works on two levels, suggesting both a literal interpretation and encouraging a more existentialist approach. It gets us pondering the mysteries of sleep, as well as the bigger question of the possibility of an afterlife. It’s refreshing to have the usual ‘baby, baby’ lyrics replaced with something a little more thought-provoking, whether it's Eilish speaking out against climate change in ‘all the good girls go to hell’ or warning teens about the irresponsible use of recreational drugs in ‘xanny.’ Her interesting use of metaphor and imaginative storytelling ensures that she never sounds preachy or self-righteous.

So there’s definitely some really positive and interesting content here. However, I still can’t help feeling uncomfortable about some moments within this album too.

Her lyrics may be massively theologically unsound, but that’s not really my main concern. It may be controversial to talk about God and the devil being friends, or good girls going to hell, but it appears to be part of a larger metaphor, rather than any sort of theological claim. (She doesn't seem to hold to any particular faith herself.)

My discomfort is largely to do with the blurred lines between creative, cathartic self-expression and unhealthy negativity, which could even border on sadism. The refrain ‘I wanna end me’ in ‘bury a friend’ is deeply unsettling, especially at a time when rates of self-harm and mental health issues amongst young people are so high. It may be read as a metaphor, but for many listeners (and maybe even Eilish herself) it could be a reality.

Is this album an enjoyable piece of art, helping us to engage with the big questions of life and work through the pain of loss, depression, and trauma? Or do we have here something more dangerous: music and lyrics that glamorise mental health problems, spiritual darkness, and suicidal tendencies? Or is it perhaps somewhere in between the two?

It makes me wonder how we are to confront some of the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves and our common human experience through art. How do we explore the big questions of life and be creative with our use of metaphor without becoming trapped in a cycle of hopelessness? How do we create a safe space where we can be honest and vulnerable about our struggles, but where we can also lead each other into hope not despair? The Psalms come to mind as a beautiful example of this.*


'Don't ask questions', Eilish sings in 'my strange addiction' and again in her final track 'goodbye'. There's surely a self-conscious sort of irony here; Eilish asks a lot of questions in this album.


It's certainly given me a lot to think about...


 

* Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?

Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God...

By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me.

Psalm 42: 5, 8

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