On January 26th, Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell stole the stage at the Grammy Awards collecting a total of 5 Grammys, including the most prestigious award of ‘Album of the Year’ for their 2019 album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Billie and Finneas entirely produced and wrote the album (with mixing and mastering by Rob Kinelski and John Greenham). Apart from all of the wonderful accolades, awards, and personal stories behind this masterful album, there’s something completely missing from mainstream praise and reviews of this record: its dense narrative and compelling themes.
When consumed holistically, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? unfolds as a circular narrative in which the protagonist (voiced by Billie Eilish) undergoes dramatic dispositional and moral transformation across several impressionistic dreams. In this long-form article, we will examine the profound narrative of this break-out musical composition and explore its rich thematic content. Before sequentially breaking down the album track-by-track, I will first establish some basic concepts pertinent to my long-form analysis, such as the definition of a “narrative album” and a “circular narrative,” as well as the key influences and themes of the record.
Table of Contents:
- Intro: Narrative Albums
- Circular Narratives
- Inside the Author’s Head
- “All Books are about Other Books”
- Narrative Structure
- Long-form Album Analysis
- The Secret to Unlock The Story: The Number 8
Intro: Narrative Albums
Narrative albums are a unique musical experience — they take a novelistic and literary approach to music. Not every record has a narrative (in the purest sense of the word, meaning a clear storyline with thematic progression). Still, when an album does, it’s usually not difficult to detect. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, for example, tells the narrative of Kendrick metamorphosing from a materialistic, naive rapper (a metaphorical caterpillar) on the first track “Wesley’s Theory” to a self-actualized, matured thought-leader (a metaphorical butterfly) on the last track “Mortal Man.”
Kanye West’s 2016 opus The Life of Pablo re-tells the biblical story of Paul the Apostle transforming from a corrupt sinner to a realized saint. At the center of Pablo, there is a rich juxtaposition between religiosity and hedonism, which describes not just Paul’s or Kanye’s struggles but all of humanity’s plight between good and evil. Other examples of thematically rich, narrative-based albums abound in the music of artists like Lupe Fiasco, Beyoncé, Denzel Curry, Little Simz, Frank Ocean, and Tyler the Creator. When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? follows the footsteps of these timeless musical oeuvres and tells its own unique narrative across four acts.
The most common narrative style is chronological — a story with a beginning, middle, and end told sequentially. Circular narratives, though much less common, offer a different format. As the name suggests, they are circular — they begin and end at the same point. Instead of providing a clear conclusion tying together the remaining pieces of the story, a circular narrative provides closure through a return to the expositional material. A classic example of a circular narrative is Homer’s “The Odyssey,” as it opens with the protagonist leaving Ithaca to go to war and closes with his triumphant return to the same point.
As music and literature have been merging over the past few decades, there are a handful of examples of circular narratives in the music world. As recently as last year, Tyler the Creator’s IGOR (it won ‘Rap Album of the Year’ at the Grammys) ostensibly featured a circular narrative. Cole Cuchna, the host of Dissect podcast discovered this interpretation using his expertise in music theory on Twitter:
“@tylerthecreator IGOR ends and begins with a similar/same bass synth. Also noticed the end of [the last song on the album] doesn’t resolve (ends on Bb when it “should” end on F). Also noticed that Bb gets resolved by the Eb that begins IGORS THEME [the first song].”
Tyler mysteriously liked Dissect’s tweet essentially confirming this theory. The narrative sequence of IGOR is as follows: the first act of the album deals with the “Igor” character falling in love and in the second half the protagonist emphatically moves on. But, by ending and starting with similar musical notes, Tyler employs circular narrative structure to display the tumultuous, erratic, and cyclical nature of relationships — romantic or otherwise. We have all fought with our loved ones, missed them, loved them, hated them — this is the cycle of human nature.
Similarly, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? employs circular narrative structure to tell its story. The first 12 songs progressively run through Billie’s emotional struggles of depression, lovesickness, hedonism, lust, etc. But instead of the final track concluding the storyline, it cycles back to the first song “bad guy,” creating a loop. We’ll explore this unorthodox narrative style more in our long-form narrative analysis.
Inside the Author’s Head
Billie Eilish’s infectious personality, quirky song ideas, and ethereal singing have propelled her album to greatness. But part of the brilliance of When We All Fall Asleep’s narrative must be credited to her brother Finneas. After reading several of Finneas’s interviews and statements about the album, it becomes apparent Finneas intended to craft a dense concept album with a profound narrative.
For example, in an interview with MTV, Finneas states his desire to craft an album with “songs bleeding into each other” and “servicing each other” on an “overarching level.” In the same interview with MTV, he also cited Shakespeare as an influence on Billie’s hit-song “you should see me in a crown,” which we will closely examine in the long-form analysis section.
Structurally, Finneas commented on the narrative arc of When We All Fall Asleep in an interview with Vulture:
“And I love arc. I love story arcs. I love things that have a conclusion. So I really love that this album finishes and it has this kind of farewell to it.”
Most tellingly, in an interview with Variety Finneas directly compared his album-crafting process to authoring novels:
“The way that we tried to approach every piece of music is, if the song had a brain, it would be aware of its catalog,” he says. “Like, the [‘When We All Fall Asleep’] album knew that the [‘Don’t Smile at Me’] EP and those other songs exist. They’re referential in certain ways: There are lines in ‘Crown’ about ‘Ocean Eyes’; ‘Ilomilo’ references ‘Bury a Friend,’ which references ‘Xanny.’ “It’s a little bit like a book series,” he continues. “Like, for ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,’ J.K. Rowling had to figure out what happened after ‘Sorcerer’s Stone,’ and for us, album two will be like what happens next to the person who went through the first record.”
But Billie Eilish is the creative source for the outlandish, otherworldly concepts of When We All Fall Asleep. In an interview with Rob Markman at Genius, Billie described her appreciation for fictional song-writing:
“You don’t have to go through anything to write about it, or you can go through everything and write about something else. It’s literally like telling a story, you can write about something you’ve done, you can write about something your friend’s done, or you want to do, or you used to do, or your mom’s done.”
This quote underscores an important aspect of this album: while we cannot assume the speaker in every song is genuinely Billie singing from real experience, for convenience, we will just refer to the protagonist of this story as “Billie” keeping in mind a lot of the plot events are exaggerated and fictionalized for dramatic effect (unrealistic songs like “all the good girls go to hell” for example). Moreover, Eilish’s fictional song-craft comes on full display in outlandishly creative songs like “bury a friend” and “bad guy.”
“All Books are about Other Books”
There is a famous axiom that all books are about other books. The recurrence of various archetypes throughout literary history and in the present supports this idea. In the “musico-literary” world (the intersection of literature and music), artists like Kanye West, Tyler the Creator, and Kendrick Lamar are revered for their universal thematic work and tightly structured narrative albums.
In the context of Billie’s album, Kanye West is a (consciously or coincidentally) towering influence whose work closely parallels the structure and themes of When We All Fall Asleep. Musically and certainly thematically, famous British singer-songwriter James Blake is spot-on in his comparison of Kanye West’s genre-defying 2013 record Yeezus to When We All Fall Asleep:
“It’s so sparsely produced, and they gate the vocals so you can’t hear any noise—when a vocal goes out there’s just complete silence. I don’t know whether that was conscious, but I found it really fascinating,” Blake explained. “‘bury a friend’ was one of the most interestingly produced things I’ve heard since [Kanye West’s] Yeezus, which I think was some influence.”
The titular protagonist of Kanye West’s Yeezus is as perverted and egomaniacal as its name suggests. He undergoes a similar moral transformation throughout the record as the protagonist of When We All Fall Asleep. We’ll more closely explore the parallels between the protagonist in Kanye’s story and Billie’s story in our long-form analysis.
Structurally, When We All Fall Asleep is incredibly reminiscent of Kanye West’s 2010 magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—almost unanimously last decade’s most critically acclaimed hip-hop record. Kanye explores the concept of reality vs. fantasy in the album by depicting both settings in its plot. The first three tracks are grounded in reality, followed by the “All of the Lights (Interlude)” — a somber, melancholic instrumental track representing the protagonist’s death. What follows are eight radically extravagant and fantastical tracks in which Kanye explores his beautiful, dark, and twisted fantasy including marrying a porn-star and living a monstrously indulgent lifestyle.
When We All Fall Asleep also features a contrast of reality vs. dream world. In Billie’s case, her album contains only a 14-second intro track (”!!!!!!!”) in reality, where Billie metaphorically removes her social armor. Subsequently, we enter into Billie’s disturbed, horrifying dream world in which she explores her most suppressed thoughts of becoming famous, living in a hedonistic environment, and grappling with the monster under her bed.
When We All Fall Asleep operates on a -3-3-1-3-3 narrative structure: the prelude, followed by Act 1, Act 2, the transitional interlude, then Act 3 and Act 4. Each act comprises a triptych (set of three parts) of dreams which loosely connect to each other and contribute to the overarching narrative.
Long-form Album Analysis
In art — music, film, prose, or poetry — a prelude functions as a precursory introduction to the centerpiece of an artistic composition. In When We All Fall Asleep, the prelude functions as a light-hearted, comedic intro in real-time before entering into the circular, inescapable portal of the protagonist’s twisted, taboo, and harrowing dream-world.
The prelude solely comprises the first track “!!!!!!!” (only 14 seconds). In this prelude, Billie and her brother Finneas say the following:
“My Invisalign has finally…
I have taken out my Invisalign
I have taken out my Invisalign, and this is the album
Billie slurpily removing her Invisalign orthodontic aligners while uproariously laughing may seem a bit absurd and nonsensical, but it does convey something much deeper — a cryptic metaphor. Like a form of social armor, Billie’s Invisalign aligners here represent her protection in front of the public, where she treads with social awareness and thoughtfulness. But here she has “taken out” her Invisalign, signaling the true, unguarded, raw character she presents to the audience in the narrative of When We All Fall Asleep. Nothing is hidden in this album. Everything is exposed. The listener might feel uncomfortable and revolted at times. But Billie doesn’t care. Buckle up and enjoy the ride!
Act 1: Rise of Villainy
[Themes: power, greed, sin]
Songs: 1) “bad guy,” 2) “xanny,” 3) “you should see me in a crown”
Now that Billie has detached her entire protective shield she wears in the public eye, we enter the dream portal of her mind — all the weird, twisted, socially taboo thoughts circulating in her psyche. Here we see the rise of her villainous persona. Narratives generally start with exposition — the “who?” “where?” and “why?” The first act of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? establishes the setting, protagonist, and desires of the protagonist. The first song, “bad guy,” a bass-heavy track that sees Eilish taunting her lover, establishes the disposition of the protagonist as pretentious, perturbed, and evil. Note, the first words at the beginning of this song are “White shirt now red.” Immediately, these colors broadly symbolize the twistedness of this story. All innocence is lost in this setting and is now tainted with evil.
“bad guy” is a very similar album-opener to “On Sight,” the first track of Kanye West’s album Yeezus, in which Kanye paralyzes the audience with the manic, monstrous Yeezus character — a soulless, defiant perversion of Jesus Christ. Kanye raps frenzied, undomesticated lines like “It’s too many hoes in this house of sin” and “No sports bra, let’s keep it bouncin’.” Billie presents an equally vile character here, dropping obscene lines like “My soul? So cynical,” “I’m that bad type…might seduce your dad type,” and “I’ll be your animal.” Perhaps most telling of all, B illie presents herself as a monster that even her mother is afraid of:
“My mommy likes to sing along with me
But she won’t sing this song
If she reads all the lyrics
She’ll pity the men I know”
Now that Billie establishes her “bad guy” persona, we learn about the social environment of the album in the next song “xanny,” an eerily vibrating song with distorted vocals exposing the self-destructiveness of modern party culture. If the speaker is corrupt, her environment is even more corrupt — due to hedonistic parties, substance abuse, and Xanax addiction. The narrator notices these hedonistic people are “nothing but unstable,” and all they bring is “ashtrays to the table” — representing how drugs have consumed their lives. Interestingly, Billie recognizes the impact of this party culture:
“I’m in their secondhand smoke.”
The exposition of the album ends with the crucial question of “why?” Billie is a morally bankrupt “bad guy.” She exists in a toxic climate in which people are addicted to drugs and waste their lives. But what is her aim? Why is she here? The third track, “you should see me in a crown,” answers this critical question. Finneas stated this song is about “being power hungry, and a power struggle in general. It feels very Macbeth to me. I thought the knife was kind of a Shakespearian take on what really is just her saying, ‘give me control.’”
This comparison is quite apt and revealing because, like the titular character of Shakespeare’s play, Billie impulsively envisages affluence and fame in this song. She wants to be a king who exercises his power and makes disciples bow before him. The frantic, power-hungry chorus supports this idea:
“Watch me make ’em bow
One by one by one
One by one by
You should see me in a crown”
The manic repetition of “one by one by one by one” emphasizes Billie’s Napoleonic desire to not only become dominant but conquer human beings and make them worship her. To inflate her ego like a hot air balloon, she needs people to acknowledge her power.
In summary, Act 1 depicts the rise of Billie’s villainy: she is a corrupt “bad guy” living in a hedonistic milieu where her peers are addicted to “xanny,” and she lusts after the symbolic “crown”: fame, power, and luxury. Indeed, a villain has risen.
Act 2: Fall of Villainy
[Themes: Luciferianism, impulsivity, taboos, egoism]
Songs: 5) “all the good girls go to hell” 6) “wish you were gay” 7) “when the party’s over”
After building up a villainous persona in an unrestrained, self-destructive environment and explicitly displaying extreme greed, one of the Bible’s seven deadly sins, Lucifer inevitably enters into the narrative in the fourth track “all the good girls go to hell” and further corrupts the protagonist. The upbeat track opens with the protagonist eerily reciting “My Lucifer is lonely,” followed by narration from Lucifer who sees the protagonist’s vulnerability and exploits it. The chorus illustrates the perversity and wickedness of the song:
“All the good girls go to Hell
‘Cause even God herself has enemies
And once the water starts to rise
And Heaven’s out of sight
She’ll want the devil on her team”
God is feminized (“herself”), and goodness is associated with hell, implying that badness or evil is really what is worth pursuing to live a happy life. The track also features climate apocalypse images of alarming sea-level rise and man-made forest fires in California destroying natural habitats and degrading the environment (“Hills burn in California”/ My turn to ignore ya”). Finneas later confirmed climate change is a central message to the song and not just an interpretive conspiracy theory.
I’m no theologian (not even a Christian, personally), but the idea in the chorus that God would now “ignore” humanity because of man’s self-destruction is not a theologically sound view. Forgiveness is a core pillar in the Bible, and unlike other religions such as Hinduism, which emphasize the idea of karma, Christianity emphasizes mercy and compassion. Clearly, the devil is out to bankrupt and mislead the protagonist. “all the good girls go to hell” is reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s song “For Sale (Interlude)” from his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly in which Kendrick sings from the perspective of “Lucy” (a seductive, sexy version of Lucifer) who tries to allure Kendrick with the trappings of materialism.
After Lucifer further corrupts the protagonist, it would make sense for her to pursue or at least visualize one of her wishful impulses. Such is the case of the subsequent song “wish you were gay.” Here, the protagonist drills through her mind and exposes the most taboo impulse expressed in this entire album: her wish that her crush was gay. The sexuality of her crush is much less significant than the catalyst for Billie’s impulse: rejection. Here are a few lines from the bridge of the song:
“To spare my pride
To give your lack of interest an explanation
Don’t say I’m not your type
Just say that I’m not your preferred sexual orientation
I’m so selfish”
The protagonist wishes her crush was gay in order to make sense of his “lack of interest” in her. If this were true, she would be exonerated of any fault of her own doing — her crush would simply not just be interested in her by virtue of her being a female. An interesting element of this song is its usage of comedy sitcom sound effects: “Aww” in the first verse and audience clapping at the end of the song. In this context, Billie wishes her love story was fabricated like a sitcom narrative; she uses comedy as a coping mechanism for the harsh reality.
Following “wish you were gay” is “when the party’s over,” a slow, quiet song about a relationship coming to an end — Finneas describes it as feeling “compelled” to be with someone despite desires to the contrary. Narratively, in line with the theme of this act (“Fall of Villainy”), the last song in this triptych represents the unmasking of Billie’s villainous persona. The metaphorical party in which she wore the evil mask of the “bad guy” and let her dreams run wild is now over. Macabre lyrics alluding to Lucifer and deranged, hyper-erotic sentiments are gone snd the villain has fallen. The party is surely over and ultimately, evil is transient. Eventually, we all come to our senses.
Transitional Interlude: Protagonist’s hurt friend
[Themes: empathy, transparency, emotional turmoil]
Song: 8) “8”
No matter how cold-blooded and disturbed the villain, humans are intrinsically good and virtuous. We have a penchant for goodness and compassion. In the first half of When We All Fall Asleep, we saw the rise and fall of a villainous character corrupted by greed, a nihilistic milieu, and egotism. Now that the narrator has unmasked her vile persona, she is ready to learn and self-examine. But something needs to prompt her to do so in this vulnerable stage.
This is precisely why Billie and Finneas place the song “8” in the exact middle of the album — six songs precede and succeed the eighth song (excluding the prelude, of course). Since all of the other tracks have such significant, important titles like “bury a friend” and “listen before i go,” the eighth track titled just after a number suggests a break or transition in the album. Initially titled “see-through,” “8” is neither upbeat and boastful like the first half of the album, and it’s certainly not suicidal or depressive like the second half. “8” is kind of like the palate cleanser in between tastings.
Atticus Finch famously states, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” in To Kill a Mockingbird. Billie quite literally follows this truth in “8.” With a babyish voice over a soft ukulele instrumental, the song is sung from the perspective of a friend Billie hurt. Billie confirmed this theory:
“I wrote ‘8’ from the perspective of somebody that I hurt….I feel like when people hear that song they’re like, “Oh, poor, baby, Billie, she’s so hurt” I was just a ******** for a minute. I really was. The only way I could deal with it was to just stop for a second and put myself in that person’s place. It’s me empathizing and the thing is that every lyric in that song is towards me.”
This friend that Billie hurt emphasizes Billie’s mistreatment of him or her:
“You’re lookin’ at me like I’m see-through
I guess I’m gonna go
I just never know how you feel
Do you even feel anything?”
Billie treated this person with a total lack of compassion and interest — the identical complaint she made against her crush in “wish you were gay.” As we will notice in Act 3 of the album (“Self-examination”), the sentiments of “8” trigger Billie into deep self-examination and reflection of the world outside of her impulsive desires and bloated ego.
Nonetheless, the number “8” runs much deeper than meets the eye. “8” also represents the circular narrative of the album. If you go inside of this geometrical figure, you can never get out — it’s a never-ending loop. As I’ll reveal in the last heading of this post (“The Secret to Unlock The Story: The Number 8”), the number 8 is the key to unlocking the precise narrative arc of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?.
Act 3: Self-examination
[Themes: addiction, reconciliation, inner demons]
Songs: 9) “my strange addiction” 10) “bury a friend” 11) “ilomilo”
Because the narrator in “8” expresses how Billie emotionally hurt him or her, the protagonist of When We All Fall Asleep is now spurred into self-examination in the penultimate act of this album: “Self-examination.” Act 3 starts with “my strange addiction,” a self-analytical track in which Billie examines her compulsive addiction to her lover. In the first verse, the speaker employs a couple of eccentric metaphors. For example, she compares her lover to “belladonna” — a plant typically used to treat sleep disorder, which can only be ingested in small amounts. If taken too much of, belladonna can be lethal — like Billie’s love interest.
The narrator uses another witty metaphor to express her romantic addiction:
“I’m the powder, you’re the fuse
Just add some friction”
Billie sexually craves her love interest and compulsively desires his company. This is the key purpose of this song: to illustrate the danger of compulsively pursuing toxic relationships, no matter how strong or addictive the attraction. An unusual feature of “my strange addiction” is snippets from “The Office” spread throughout the track. We hear strange quotes like “No, Billy, I haven’t done that dance since my wife died” by the character Michael Scott.
Once again, Billie uses comedy as a way to cope with her vices. Apart from reinforcing the sardonicism of the song, the “The Office” clips also create a deft double-entendre: the narrator is addicted to this other person, but she is also addicted to “The Office” — a subtle comment on consumer culture and how we often use fiction to escape from harsh reality.
Followed by the narrator’s self-examination of her romantic addiction, we get the outlandish song “bury a friend,” a haunting nightmare in which Billie encounters the monster under her bed — perhaps an allusion to Kanye West’s explosive song “Monster.” Billie confirmed “bury a friend” is literally from “the perspective of the monster under my bed.” The song opens from the monster, and it asks a series of existential questions:
“What do you want from me? Why don’t you run from me?”
But very quickly, the song reverts to the protagonist’s point of view:
“The way I’m drinkin’ you down
Like I wanna drown, like I wanna end me”
The protagonist is using alcohol to escape from her inner demons, which is destroying her body. Not only does this line foreshadow the narrator’s attempt at suicide in the last act of the album, but it also suggests this “monster” is more symbolic and visceral than literal.
Later, it becomes clear that this “monster” is more of a rough personification of Billie’s inner demons than a literal character in the plot. Billie said it best in her interview with The Fader:
“I also confess that I’m this monster, because I’m my own worst enemy. I might be the monster under your bed, too.”
Billie’s attempt to grapple with her “own monster” results in her personifying a host of dark, depressing, and insecure thoughts into a single, fictional entity. All the questions in the chorus are those that arise from various insecurities in relationships.
Ending the penultimate act of the album, we experience the calm and adorable track “ilomilo” named after a 2010 puzzle game in which the objective is to unite “ilo” and “milo.” Here, once again, the song is best interpreted as a loose metaphor within the context of the narrative opposed to a literal event in the plot — even if this song carries a personal significance in Billie’s life. Throughout the song, Billie expresses her desire for this other person to “come home” because she doesn’t “wanna be lonely.” Contextually, this song signifies the narrator’s attempt to reconcile her “ilo” and “milo” — her dark and positive sides. She’s coming to grips with all of the horrors and turmoil she has experienced thus far: her encounter with the devil, the monster under her bed, her toxic social environment, etc.
Act 4 (Denouement): Suicidal ideation
[Themes: suicide, love, circularity]
Songs: 12) “listen before i go” 13) “i love you” 14) “goodbye”
Like most great literary works, When We All Fall Asleep ends with a tragedy of sorts. Structurally, Finneas stated this last triptych of tracks was designed to flow seamlessly:
“Well, Billie loved the linear nature of those song titles, just saying ‘Listen Before I Go, I Love You, Goodbye.’ She liked the readability of that. I think in broad terms they are [related]. They’re different sentiments about a farewell.”
Like the tightly woven nature of the opening act of the album, the last act of the album — the denouement — is woven together very cohesively. The denouement in a story is the final part in which the strands of the plot are tied together, and matters are explained or resolved. Each of the three tracks here compliments the next, and the story ends with a dramatic, unexpected conclusion.
Musically, the denouement stands in stark contrast to the exposition, which featured heavy bass, distorted vocals, and psychotic lyricism. Here, we get a set of soft, bittersweet, and sentimental ballads that dissolve in one’s ears despite the tragic underlying meaning.
The denouement in When We All Fall Asleep starts with the slow, melancholic song “listen before i go,” in which Billie contemplates suicide. In the first verse, she sings:
“Take me to the rooftop
I wanna see the world when I stop
The narrator wants to see the world one last time before making such a monumental decision as ending her life. In terms of growth, the narrator has matured quite a bit since her villainous phase. She’s now repentant, apologetic, and remorseful for her sins:
“Sorry can’t save me now (Sorry)
Sorry I don’t know how (Sorry)
Sorry there’s no way out (Sorry)”
The last word of this song is even “sorry.” Compare this with the extreme impulsivity and materialism the narrator flaunts in “you should see me in a crown” for example — it’s clear Billie has gone through dramatic dispositional growth.
Also, the narrator foreshadows the circular finale of the narrative with the line “Sorry, there’s no way out (Sorry).” At the very end of the song, we also hear emergency vehicle sirens fading in the back, signaling the speaker pursued her desire to go to a “rooftop” to consider suicide. Seeing someone casually standing on top of a roof and staring down surely raised some red flags, and the first responders appear to have been alerted.
Instead of physically committing suicide out of remorse and self-contempt, Billie, fortunately, chooses “love” as we transition to the penultimate track of the record “i love you.” “i love you” is such a poignant acoustic ballad that it even evoked tears from someone like me — a nerdy 19-year-old literary critic who spends all day listening to heavy rap music and writing articles.
Literally, “i love you” depicts the narrator professing her unadulterated love for another person. Continuing the emotional growth of “listen before i go,” we see the protagonist self-reflecting even more:
“Never been the type to
Let someone see right through, ooh”
Unlike the first half of the album, where the narrator conceals her emotional turmoil and vulnerability under the guise of a villainous persona, now she is presenting herself completely transparently. She’s finally opened up and embraced life and its struggles. Rather than ending her life, Billie finds a new purpose in love and devotion.
And, now we get the epic finale of the album, the piece that completes the puzzle, ties the knot, and ends the film: “goodbye.” In its entirety, here are the lyrics of the song:
Don’t leave me
It’s not true
Take me to the rooftop
Told you not to worry
What do you want from me?
Don’t ask questions
Wait a minute
Don’t you know I’m no good for you?
Baby, I don’t feel so good
And all the good girls go to Hell
Bite my tongue, bide my time
What is it about them?
I’m the bad guy”
Upon hearing the song, all these lines might sound incredibly familiar. That’s because they are. This verse combines lyrics from each of the previous songs on When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? in reverse album order. “It’s not true” is from the last track, “Take me to the rooftop” is from “listen before i go,” and so forth. It all ties back to the exposition — the rise of the evil character — and ends where the story begins: “I’m the bad guy.” This unorthodox ending establishes the circular narrative of the album — we end up where we started. The brilliance of this ending is in its answering of the titular question “when we all fall asleep, where do we go?”
In this narrative, the protagonist is stuck in her thoughts — stuck in the tumult of her dream-world. She has certainly made progress, metamorphosing from a solipsistic villain obsessed with her ego to a vulnerable, repentant character purging her suicidal thoughts, inner demons, and impulsive desires. These themes are certainly not unique to the protagonist or the creators of this musical composition. The dream setting of the album is essentially a microcosm of society as a whole. How many times have we had our ego inflated by way of compliments, success, or just pure selfishness? How often does life treat us poorly, and we feel like giving up? Also, we might not like to admit it, but when was the last time we hurt somebody?… Like really hurt somebody — making them feel like they are “see-through?” These are the struggles the protagonist of this narrative faces head-on and, to some extent, learns from.
But the real tragedy of When We All Fall Asleep is that the protagonist is trapped in an endless cycle of ups, downs, conflicts, happiness, depression, and melancholy. At the very end, she is still the “bad guy.” She is confined in a never-ending loop of thoughts, emotions, experiences, and nightmares. This finale is a clever illustration of life and its emotional and experiential cyclicality. There is no such thing as permanent happiness or permanent depression and suffering. We all go through cycles; we fail, we succeed, we rise, we fall. We see life spring up and eventually people aging and eventually dying. There’s no avoiding conflict in life. The best we can do is keep a level of equilibrium and self-awareness. The real transformation Billie goes through is when she starts seeing the world and herself beyond her narrow lens. After being metaphysically touched by a friend she deeply hurt, Billie begins to self-examine and understand her role in society. She looks deep inside and comes to grips with her toxic feelings and addictions.
Like the protagonist in the album, we shouldn’t give up, no matter how much “sorry can’t save [you] now.” If you’ve sinned, lived indulgently and selfishly or hurt someone badly, or even contemplated suicide when things are terrible, remember the protagonist of When We All Fall Asleep kept pushing.