As the producer and co-writer on his sister Billie Eilish’s landmark 2019 album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, as well as her follow-up from earlier this year, Happier Than Ever, Finneas O’Connell has helped bring to life one of the most significant pop artists of this century. But he already had his own career before he teamed up with Billie. His garage-y band the Slightlys played Warped Tour in 2015, and he’s been releasing solo material since the mid-2010s; Eilish’s first single, “Ocean Eyes,” had originally been intended for his own band. After the breakout success of When We All Fall Asleep, he was understandably speedy in trying to find a larger stage for his own talents, releasing Blood Harmony, an eclectic nine-song EP that displayed his skills at crafting sensitive ballads, slick guitar ‘n B, and crisp crooner confections.
Finneas’s full-length debut shows just how grand his songwriterly ambitions can get, suggesting a tunesmith who’d rather create his generation’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” or pen the next Dear Evan Hansen than burnish his resume as a Top 40 song doctor. Album opener “A Concert Six Months From Now” is his clever entrant into the canon of Covid-themed pop, going from spare acoustic sketch to stagey sturm and drang as the hopeful act of buying a ticket to a concert in 2022 becomes a metaphor for his against-the-odds dream of saving a botched romance. “The Kids Are All Dying” is equally sweeping, proudly offering a melodic debt to Elton John and making ample space for Finneas to unfurl an athletic falsetto as he wonders about whether it’s right to sing about love and sex in an age of global warming and school shootings.
The bold gestures continue apace. “Only a Lifetime” and “Love is Pain” are piano unburdenings with the satiny sweep of Sam Smith. Elsewhere, Finneas displays his pension for tightly focused romantic conceits, clinging to his lyrical through-threads with heroic dedication on “Hurt Locker” and “Medieval.” While his pretensions can at times make things a little awkward (see the impressionistic piano piece “Peaches Etude”), there’s an admirable idealism in his desire to write earnest songs in a cynical age, and those songs can end up leaving a clear, large mark on your emotions. The album’s centerpiece is “The ’90s,” a Zoomer’s tribute to a simpler time, with an amiably murky pulse, gentle vocals, a hey-why-not dubstep drop, and lyrics that celebrate the pre-internet age with the Edenic nostalgia of Ray Davies big-upping a Victorian village green. “When your heart starts to harden/Lay your guard down in your garden,” he offers with prayerful generosity.
There’s lighter fare here too, like the slinky R&B nugget “Happy Now,” which renders the naive self-pity of a new celeb with some offhanded whistling and a chuckle. The playfully predatory “Around My Neck” could almost be read as his riff on Billie’s “Bad Guy,” with its cute goth-candy groove, fingers-up-your-back synth trills, spooky background moans, and Finneas’ mumbled horn-dog come-ons. In harsher hands, the song might be an unexpected swerve into bad-boy territory, but he’s such a nice guy, it comes off as unthreatening as an invitation to come over for Sunday dinner with his family.