Every so often, a preternaturally talented teenager comes along and suddenly everyone of a certain age is made to feel very old indeed. Amy Winehouse recorded her debut album before she hit 20, Arctic Monkeys were a bunch of kids still at school in Sheffield when they formed, and Lorde was just 17 when her debut Pure Heroine was released.
Now it’s the turn of Billie Eilish. Born just two months after 9/11, she’s already gained a cult following for early EPs like Don’t Smile At Me and an almost otherworldly image. Like the aforementioned Lorde, Eilish’s main draw is her originality – she really is like no other teen pop star you’ll have heard before.
Unlike a lot of her contemporaries, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? isn’t the product of a committee of professional songwriters and producers. The majority of the tracks were written by Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell, with the latter taking on production duties as well. The result is a genre-hopping, 42 minute exhilarating ride that takes some pretty unexpected turns.
Bad Guy, which opens the album properly, is a real attention-grabber of a track: possibly the most overtly poppy moment of the album but still retaining an otherworldly sheen thanks to O’Connell’s production, it sees Eilish cast an eye on power dynamics in relationships (“So you’re a tough guy, like it really rough guy”) before describing herself as the “Make your mama sad type, might seduce your dad type”. It has the potential to be an uncomfortable listen before Eilish defuses the tension with a defiantly teenage sigh of “duh…”.
There’s a dubstep element to the grinding You Should See Me In A Crown, some frail piano ballads in the likes of Listen Before I Go and When The Party’s Over, while My Strange Addiction is a slinky little electro-pop number which throws in samples of the American version of The Office. It’s this cross-cutting of styles which keeps the album fresh, and another level is added when you listen closely to Eilish’s lyrics.
Listen Before I Go reads like a suicide note (“If you need me, wanna see me, better hurry ‘cos I’m leaving soon… sorry there’s no way out”), and the jazzy Wish That You Were Gay sees Eilish trying to explain away a potential lover’s lack of interest: “Don’t say I’m not your type, just say that I’m not your preferred sexual orientation, I’m so selfish.” It’s a typically teenage view of the world, but shot through with such world-weary ennui that it never becomes less than compelling.
It’s all remarkably assured and confident for a debut album, even if sometimes O’Connell’s experimental production techniques fall flat. The cutesy ukulele strum and pitched vocals of 8 starts to grate after a couple of listens, and Xanny’s appropriately narcotic haze makes you yearn for the party anthems like All The Good Girls Go To Heaven or Bury Your Friends.
Yet these are but minor quibbles – overall, When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go? is a startlingly good introduction to Billie Eilish, an album full of attitude but with the talent to back it up. Where she goes from here will be fascinating to see.