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Wily And Clever, Billie Eilish's Debut Album Sounds Like No One Else


This is FRESH AIR. Billie Eilish is a 17-year-old singer-songwriter from California who's just released her debut album titled "When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?" She's already enormously popular on the strength of a series of singles she's released, most of them recorded at home with her brother as her producer. Rock critic Ken Tucker says no one else in current music sounds like Billie Eilish. Here's his review.


BILLIE EILISH: (Vocalizing). (Singing) White shirt now red, my bloody nose - sleeping, you're on your tippy toes - creeping around like no one knows, think you're so criminal.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Over a pulsing beat, the voice of Billie Eilish slides in. That voice is at once intimate, confiding and slurry. It's hard to catch the words, but you get the gist. She's taunting a guy for being a bad guy. But then, mid-verse, she changes course, suggesting that she's the bad guy - that far from being a victim, she's a perpetrator.

It's a clever, wily move. But then, so much of what this 17-year-old singer-songwriter does is wily and clever. And her debut album, called "When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?" is a frequently startling showcase for her sly smarts.


EILISH: (Singing) Baby, I don't feel so good - six words you never understood. I'll never let you go - five words you'll never say - aww. I laugh along four days has never felt so long. If three's a crowd and two was us, one slipped away.


EILISH: (Singing) I just want to make you feel OK. But all you do is look the other way. I can't tell you how much I wish I didn't want to stay. I just kind of wish you were gay.

TUCKER: Billie Eilish was raised in Los Angeles, home-schooled by parents who are actors. Over the past couple of years, young Billie has racked up over a billion streams for her songs of quiet angst and self-mocking humor - pretty good for a kid who's making most of her music at home in her bedroom with her brother. That brother is Finneas O'Connell, an actor and musician who writes some of her work and produces most of it.

The song I just played, "Wish You Were Gay," is one of the singles that established her popularity. In it, she talks about a stalled romance. Rather than confronting the reasons he might not have liked her, she says she just wishes he were gay because, if so, the pressure would be off her. That is primo teenage thinking. And kudos to Eilish for being honest enough to set it to music. Another song, "Xanny," may warm the hearts of parents with its anti-drug message.


EILISH: (Singing) What is it about them? I must be missing something. They just keep doing nothing, too intoxicated to be scared. Better off without them - they're nothing but unstable. Bring ashtrays to the table, and that's about the only thing they share. I'm in their secondhand smoke, still just drinking canned Coke. I don't need a Xanny to feel better. On designated drives home, only one who's not stoned. Don't give me a Xanny now or ever.

TUCKER: A song about being repulsed by her generation's rampant misuse of Xanax, "Xanny" tempts the listener to fixate on the lyrics. But the music should not be ignored. Eilish begins that song with a smoky sigh. It reminds me a little of Lana Del Rey and even more of the torch singer Julie London, to make a reference that might mean something to baby boomers but will seem hopelessly obscure to Eilish and her Generation Z core audience. There's a premature world-weariness about Eilish that she somehow makes enormously appealing. Her perennially poker-faced affect is a rebuke to any adult who might have the gall to tell her to lighten up. But her songs give her blank moodiness context, detail and weight.


EILISH: (Singing) What do you want from me? Why don't you run from me? What are you wondering? What do you know? Why aren't you scared of me? Why do you care for me? When all fall asleep, where do we go?

CROOKS: Come here.

EILISH: (Singing) Say it. Spit it out. What is it exactly? You're paying? Is the amount cleaning you out? Am I satisfactory? Today I'm thinking about the things that are deadly. The way I'm drinking you down - like I want to drown, like I want to end me. Step on the glass.

TUCKER: That's "Bury A Friend," whose screechy sound effects dramatize Eilish's lyric about a monster under the bed. She and her brother like to play around with her recorded voice, distorting it, making it blur into dance-pop whose beats owe something to hip-hop in their precise rhythms.


EILISH: (Singing) Don't ask questions you don't want to know - learned my lesson way too long ago. To be talking to you, belladonna - should have taken a break, not an Oxford comma. Take what I want when I want to, and I want you. Bad, bad news...

TUCKER: Billy Eilish doesn't sound like anyone around right now, partly because her frame of reference seems so vast. In addition to hip-hop and electronic dance music, she seems to be on familiar terms with folk music, soul music, glam rock, heavy metal. It wouldn't have shocked me at all if this 17-year-old had concluded her album singing a duet with Willie Nelson. Instead, she wraps it up with three songs that are the most bleak and despairing ones on the album. I don't know where Eilish is heading, and I'll bet she finds my confusion just another measure of success.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Billie Eilish's new album, "When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?". Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about Congress in the Trump era. My guest will be Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, who co-write Politico's newsletter Playbook and have written a new book called "The Hill To Die On: The Battle For Congress And The Future Of Trump's America." I hope you'll join us.


EILISH: (Singing) Standing there, killing time, can't commit to anything but a crime. Peter's on vacation, an...

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


EILISH: (Singing) Hills burn in California, my turn to ignore you - don't say I didn't warn you. All the good girls go to hell 'cause even God herself has enemies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.