When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
If being a teenager is so often such a torturous living hell, why is teen pop such a slick, smoothed over, and artificial enterprise? Because sex and romance and escapism sell, I suppose. But so can alienation and awkwardness and uncertainty when packaged in a properly appealing way.
That’s where Billie Eilish comes in. “The pop icon who defines 21st-century teenage angst” — that’s according to the Guardian — is a 17-year-old California songwriter who makes homemade, woozy, deceptively accomplished goth-electro songs with the aid of her actor-musician older brother, Finneas O’Connell. Eilish was already fabulously popular before this big-question-pondering debut album came out — the often blue-haired songwriter started gathering commercial steam when her “Ocean Eyes” debut single went viral in 2016, and, along with hundreds of millions of song streams, she’s acquired 16 million Instagram followers. (And because she’s a little devilish, she follows 666 other users.) The speed with which the Los Angeles daughter of two actors who has perfected a Marilyn Manson dead-eye stare has become successful has led to the suspicion that she’s a mere industry creation. Not so. When We Fall Asleep is a thoroughly assured effort cloaked in darkness and sputtering effects that features spot-on songwriting at its core, along with the occasional ukulele and a say-no-to-drugs message on “Xanny.” Parents, don’t be concerned your daughters are listening to this disturbingly disaffected new music. Instead, congratulate them on their good taste. — Dan DeLuca
On his smash 2017 debut, American Teen, Khalid Robinson was a hugely likable, PG-rated, overnight R&B star with a sculpture of hair who sang hard-Rs as soft-Ws and celebrated being “Young, Dumb and Broke” on his best song, which Sir Elton John covered. Even though his biggest hit, “Location,” concerned hooking up, he eschewed sex talk for mildly anxious confessions about living with his parents and not always saying what he means.
Neither last year’s Suncity EP nor this follow-up have anything as quotable as the debut, though, or much at all. As Robinson grows/sinks into professionalism, his tunes are still top-grade, though, at least for the first six on Free Spirit, which can hang with American Teen melodically. It’s the more guitar-heavy production that carries the highlights this time, like the hypnotic, lightly Latinized riffs that hook “My Bad” and “Don’t Pretend” throughout. “Right Back” is as addictive as anything he’s done, but there might be more where that came from if only the words could stick — beyond observing that he sings about his phone too damn much. — Dan Weiss
Vineland’s Paul Jost has been around the block as a session cat — drumming, blowing harmonica — long before he began singing in his late 50s. Jost has leapt into melodic projects such as 2013′s Can’t Find My Way Home and the yet-to-be-recorded “Born to Run Reimagined” live showcase. These gigs found an athletic yet ruminative Jost and his always intuitive crews stretching out the notes and arrangements of Traffic, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and others, and an occasional syrupy, psychedelic edge.
Simple Life continues Jost’s soulful vocal rush-and-hush with a klatsch of spirited players (pianist Jim Ridl, bassist Dean Johnson, drummer Tim Horner, vibraphonist Joe Locke) and eclectic song selection. Here, Harold Arlen’s “If I Only Had a Brain” and Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’ ” are leisurely pulled from shape and filled with pixie-ish piano lines onto which Jost gently sand dances. And though he covers the waterfront of daring jazz composition (Sonny Rollins’ “No Mo” done as a slippery scat number) and Tin Pan Alley allure (Peggy Lee’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” recorded slow and tender), Jost’s own songs are no chopped liver. “Livin’ in the Wrong Time” is studied, steady, filled with thoughtful huffs and hollers, and written with an eye toward society’s current breakdown. It’s a song you could hear John Legend singing as Jost’s pensive soulfulness has a similar vibe. — A.D. Amorosi