There was a time when I was dead certain that the further someone was past their teenaged years, the less business they had flinging pop songs into the world. The vernacular of modern pop is still drawing its emotional language from the nineteen-fifties and -sixties, when boys were simultaneously dreamy and dangerous and holding hands was a major prize. When middle-aged dudes are still singing about puppy love and pretty girls, there can be an unnerving clang to the sentiment. In this creative realm, wisdom and experience can lead to an impurity that must be overcome. It simply seems more suitable — more right — for the composition and performance to emanate from a creator who’s chronologically closer to that precarious time when feelings are big as cymbal crashes.
So I come to Billie Eilish’s debut full-length, When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, with a readiness to be convinced. The upstart Angeleno is only a few months past her seventeenth birthday and already operates in the eye of a cultural hurricane, the beneficiary and victim of endless hype. Writing with her brother Finneas O’Connell (who also produces the album), Eilish crafts complicated, layered songs that veer and wobble like a ill-built bicycle on a slick roadway. The tracks don’t come across as faulty or unpracticed, though. There’s instead an excitement to the uncertainty, a sense that freedom is being earned through fearlessness, a blithe disinterest in adhering to rules. “Bad Guy” has synthesized snapping, a bounding beat, a vocal affection that sounds like hyperventilation harnessed into rhythm, and a nicely deployed “Duh” here and there. And before it’s over, it collapses in on itself to almost become a different song altogether.
Almost inevitably, Eilish calls to mind other recent (or relatively recent) performers who started rustling treetops when the brashness of youth was on their side. “When the Party’s Over” echoes Lana Del Rey’s forlorn chanteuse style, and “All the Good Girls Go to Hell” recalls the cheeky prowl of Lily Allen. “I Love You” is rich with the airy indie folk of a Wainwright offspring. Eilish pinballs between divergent modes with evident ease, proving equally adept with the achingly tender “Listen Before I Go,” the probing intricacies of “Bury a Friend,” and the brash “Wish You Were Gay,” on which she fantasizes a face-saving excuse for a guy’s disinterest. Not every idea works perfectly (I’m at best so-so on the scattering of The Office audio clips on “My Strange Addiction”), but at least Eilish is actively pushing to fill up the plate she’s set.
When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is consistently impressive. It’s unclear if it’s the opening salvo to a long and varied career or a fierce, fevered flash of momentary inspiration, destined to fade. Either way it supports that weatherbeaten thesis I’ve dragged around so long that I can no longer be accused of positing it out of peer solidarity with rambunctious kids cutting records: It’s a little easier to sound sharp and true when there are fewer miles on the odometer.