Finneas Is Better Behind The Scenes
Finneas Baird O’Connell has been involved in some of the best, most influential pop music of the past few years. As the co-writer, producer, and font of encouragement for his younger sister Billie Eilish, Finneas — he is a mononym kind of guy — played a central role in sculpting the sound of mainstream pop today. At age 24, he’s won more Grammys than he can probably carry at one time. (I have no idea how heavy and unwieldy those gramophone statues are, but toting eight of them around seems like it would be impossible.) Thanks to his work on two chart-topping Eilish albums and her array of hit singles, he’s now an in-demand writer and producer for other artists like Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, Camila Cabello, Halsey, Girl In Red, Demi Lovato, and Kid Cudi.
He has also become a performer in his own right. Friday, just months after Eilish dropped her sophomore album Happier Than Ever, Finneas released his debut solo album Optimist. Because Finneas is very publicly involved in Eilish’s career — performing with her, sitting for interviews with her, etc. — Optimist is not exactly a move from behind the scenes into the spotlight. But like many skilled producers who attempt the leap into pop stardom, his own music reveals how much more adept he is in a complementary role. Optimist is neither a smashing success nor an embarrassing faceplant. It is the essence of competence.
Finneas wrote, produced, and performed the entirety of the album — an impressive feat considering how professional it sounds and how consistently the songs command attention rather than disappear into the background. Optimist presents a more straightforward, adult contemporary spin on the sound Finneas has crafted with Eilish, trading out most of the jazz, bedroom-pop, and electronics but keeping the maudlin mood and vaguely alternative edge. There’s a fair amount of diversity within the album’s palette: floaty “Bennie And The Jets”-via-“Super Rich Kids” piano-pop on “The Kids Are All Dying,” lite disco-funk on closer “How It Ends,” Imogen Heap-style Auto-Tuned digital balladry on “The 90s,” bossa nova on “Happy Now?” If you tilt your ear you might catch a trace of Spoon in “Around My Neck,” the one song where Finneas lets his croon erupt into a scream. There are also lots of nice little flourishes when you listen on headphones, be it a string section lurking in the background of “A Concert Six Months From Now,” the gorgeous noisy bombast that works as a quasi-hook in “The 90s,” or the way “Around My Neck” seems to flicker with every downbeat. And the brief piano instrumental “Peaches Etude” is proof that he could probably score a movie too and is capable of catching your ear without lyrics when he wants.
Ultimately, though, Optimist could benefit from a bit more weirdness. Mostly the songs avoid big instrumental flourishes that might distract from Finneas’ vocals, and the idiosyncrasies that percolate within the music are smoothed-out enough that on the whole it plays like one long brownish blur. If the lyrics weren’t so clearly personal, I’d call the album a brilliant audition tape for future production jobs, proof that Finneas can adjust the artsy-to-accessible ratio and churn out M.O.R. radio bait just as ably as the quirky retro-futurist pop he and Eilish are known for. Maybe it will function that way anyway, given how effectively he spotlights his own vocals, which split the difference between Beck’s off-kilter gravitas and Brendon Urie’s theater-kid expressiveness. His voice is full and hearty where Eilish’s is sighing and wispy, with a depth that’s accentuated in the album’s quieter moments. Finneas sounds completely comfortable belting out vocal hooks and easing into the less bombastic corners of his songs. He sounds a lot less comfortable with the life those songs are describing.
As with Happier Than Ever, the title Optimist is at least a little sarcastic. Finneas is in a similar headspace to his sister: disturbed and disappointed by the trappings of fame, distraught about his own personal drama, confused about his place in a world consumed by crises. There is a romantic streak to Finneas’ music, though, which is how the word “optimist” appears on opening track. A ballad that imagines what Sam Smith might sound like in the rock milieu, with acoustic strums giving way to crashing electric power chords, “A Concert Six Months From Now” is a distinctively pandemic-era song: “Your favorite band is back on the road/ And this fall, they’re playin’ the Hollywood Bowl/ I’ve already purchased two seats for their show/ I guess I’m an optimist,” Finneas sings to an on-again, off-again lover, grappling with both heartsickness and that now-familiar quandary of whether events scheduled in the immediate future will actually happen. “What They’ll Say About Us” is similarly topical, drawing inspiration from last year’s Black Lives Matter protests and actor Nick Cordero’s death from COVID-19.
Not every concern on Optimist is quite so relatable. Most of the songs find Finneas struggling to adjust to a life of fame and fortune that’s, surprise surprise, not all it’s cracked up to be. In the somber “Someone Else’s Star,” he outlines an age-old pop-star conundrum: “Now all your memories feel more like films/ You put ’em on to see which ones still kill/ You wonder why the bad ones paid the bills.” In the treacly electro-rock ballad “Hurt Locker” he wonders how fleeting all this attention will be. He can be off-puttingly glib, like on “Happy Now?” when he blurs the line between self-deprecation and humblebrag with an invitation to “take a drive around town in my douchebag car.” It’s not a particularly compelling spin on the familiar post-fame trope; a song designed to elicit sympathy for Finneas instead suggests the dude is a little much.
Understandably, Finneas is particularly distressed by the dysfunctional patterns of Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. On “The 90s” he longs for a world without social media. “Medeival” deals with the exhausting cycle of discourse and beef: “What should we fight about this time? What will you write about this time? What does it matter if you’re not fine? You should’ve kept that shit offline.” He sings “The Kids Are All Dying” from the perspective of an overzealous critic who thinks any kind of pleasure is problematic: “How can you sing about love when the kids are all dying/ How can you sing about drugs, politicians are lying/ How can you sing about sex when the school is on lockdown.” Whether real or imagined, the trolls he’s battling sound tedious, but his response does not exactly liberate artist or listener from the toxic muck. Like so much of the album, it’s a decent idea that just leaves me feeling blah.
America has a new #1 song. Almost three months after being blocked from a #1 debut by BTS, Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow’s “Industry Baby” has climbed to the top of Billboard‘s Hot 100. It’s the third #1 hit for LNX and the first for Harlow, whose own breakthrough hit “Whats Poppin” topped at out #2. Billboard also notes that “Industry Baby” is the fifth #1 as a producer for Kanye West, who co-produced the song with Take A Daytrip.
Up next: the Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber’s “Stay” at #2; Walker Hayes’ “Fancy Like” at #3; and Ed Sheeran’s “Bad Habits” at #4; Drake, Future, and Young Thug’s “Way 2 Sexy” at #5; Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” at #6; Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More” at #7; and Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” at #8. WizKid, Tems, and Bieber’s “Essence” rises one spot to a new #9 peak. Sheeran’s “Shivers” rises to a new high as well at #10, his ninth top-10 hit in America.
In a slow week near the top of the Billboard 200, Drake’s Certified Lover Boy is back at #1. Billboard reports that CLB tallied 94,000 equivalent album units, a whopping 92,000 of them via streaming (125.77 million on-demand track streams), good for a fourth nonconsecutive week on top. Don Toliver’s Life Of A Don debuts at #2 with 68,000 units and 18,000 in sales, surpassing last year’s #7-peaking Heaven Or Hell to become the Travis Scott protege’s best-charting album. The rest of the top 10 in order: YoungBoy Never Broke Again, Meek Mill, Olivia Rodrigo, Lil Nas X, Doja Cat, Morgan Wallen, Kanye West, and the Kid Laroi.
Adele – “Easy On Me”
I get the disappointment from people who were hoping for something a bit riskier from Adele, but damn, what a perfect Adele song this is.
Kelly Clarkson & Ariana Grande – “Santa, Can’t You Hear Me”
I appreciate every attempt to write a new Christmas standard, but this just seems like an excuse for Kelly and Ariana to flail their voices around a bunch.
Summer Walker – “Ex For A Reason” (Feat. JT from City Girls)
A lot to like about this, not least of all that sultry guitar solo ripping through the background. Excited for Summer Walker season.
Julia Michaels – “Just One Look”
I am enjoying Julia Michaels’ rock phase.
Lauren Jauregui & Vic Mensa – “Scattered”
Neither of the singles so far have gobsmacked me, but Lauren Jauregui album is quietly shaping up to be pretty fascinating.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Adele squashed her beef with Peppa Pig. [TMZ]
- An Adele concert special featuring an interview with Oprah Winfrey will air on CBS 11/14, the weekend before her new album drops. [TV Line]
- Machine Gun Kelly was pelted with bottles and tree branches at Aftershock Festival. [Metal Injection]
- Blackpink kindly ask that fans stop giving them gifts. [All Kpop]
- Ed Sheeran joined Coldplay’s album launch concert at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire on “Fix You” and “Shape Of You.” [Twitter]
- Coldplay announced their Music Of The Spheres World Tour. [Coldplay]
- A masked Kanye West performed at a wedding in Italy. [Complex]
- A drill remix of Paramore’s “Still Into You” went viral on TikTok. [TikTok]
- Jimmy Kimmel helped Billie Eilish cross things off her bucket list. [YouTube]
- As part of a new deal with Megan Thee Stallion, Popeyes has partnered with the rapper on a limited-edition hot sauce and made her a franchise owner. [Ad Week]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME