Billie Eilish Is Still on a Roll With 'Hit Me Hard and Soft': Review

25 days ago
Billie Eilish

What a great season for music this is, if you’re someone who has an old-fashioned thing for albums that really feel like albums. And it’s not because of any wave of old-timers ganging up with each other to show off their concept-record chops. It’s a trifecta of megastar divas who really want you to hear their truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the full album-length truth (although they surely won’t turn down your random Spotify spins). First we had Beyoncé’s “Cowboy Carter,” then Taylor Swift’s “The Tortured Artists Department” and now Billie Eilish’s “Hit Me Hard and Soft” as collections you want to immerse yourself in, not because the artists in question imperiously demand it — although they kinda do — but because these are women who know how to world-build. Experiencing their latest wares just a city or a continent at a time doesn’t seem enough.

With that said, though, Eilish’s album almost couldn’t have been designed more to feel like the opposite of Beyoncé’s or Swift’s opuses. Length is the thing that’s already been remarked upon, pre-release: At about 45 minutes in length, “Hit Me Hard and Soft” is a good half-hour shorter than “Cowboy Carter,” and comes in an hour and 15 under “TTPD: The Anthology.” (That’s neither good nor bad; consider us agnostic on the album-length debate.) What’s more striking is how Eilish isn’t going for grand statements, either culturally or personally, the way these other artists are. There’s no sense that she or brother/co-writer/producer Finneas were going after anything remotely akin to world domination here, either — unless there’s such a thing as a subtle blockbuster… and maybe there is? It’s a series of sketches marked by their beauty, quietness (most of the time) and sonic exploration — 10 songs that couldn’t sound more different, but that it’s also hard to imagine not wanting to experience as a whole.

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Did we say 10 songs? Well, technically that’s true, but Eilish is also exercising her knack for turning a song around on a dime, mid-stream, as previously heard in the whisper-to-a-scream title track of “Happier Than Ever.” So it’s a 10-track record that happens to contain 13 excellent songs. The back half of the album is full of truly bifurcated numbers — the most whiplash-y example being “L’Amour De Ma Vie,” which spends its first three and a half minutes being a Laufey song, then opts out of its quaint wryness and spends the final two turning into a full-on Charli XCX hyper-pop track. That’s followed by “Bittersuite,” which employs the pun in the title for a reason: it starts with an insistent electronic pulse, turns into something sleepier and cooler after a minute and a half, and finally wraps up with a minute or so of disquieting synth. The finale, “Blue,” starts off nice-and-easy but turns into something much more melancholy partway through, like she suddenly decided she needed to take the title deadly seriously and opted to write an entirely different song two minutes in, ending the album on a seriously haunting note you didn’t quite see coming.

Are there any simple pleasures in “Hit Me Hard and Soft,” you may be wondering, after reading that list of left turns? There are — she doesn’t overindulge her suite tooth. There’s a wonderful track in a progressive R&B vein that might have a better chance of being a hit if she hadn’t titled it “Chihiro,” apparently named after the protagonist of Ghibli’s “Spirited Away.” Right after that comes the album’s purest pop, “Birds of a Feather,” which, from its chimey opening synth line to its rhapsody over true love (“Might not be forever / But if it’s forever / It’s even better”), gives us a rare vision of an Eilish so blissful, it’s as if depression never touched her mind. Well, maybe the lyrics’ repeated avowals that her lover should stay alive “till I rot away dead and buried / Till I’m in the casket you carry” offer a hint of that. But at the end, when she blurts out, “I love you, don’t act so surprised”… it’s still surprising, as the ray of pure sunlight filtering into one of her records.

Eros, actually, is something that hasn’t been a major player in Eilish’s albums to date… and perhaps that’s as it should have been for someone who was putting out masses of material at 16 and 17. But she makes up for any lost time with “Lunch,” destined to be the album’s most-talked about track, as an ode to the joys of delivering cunnilingus. (Eilish said in her revealing recent Rolling Stone interview that she hadn’t actually had any such same-sex experiences when she started writing the tune, but from its vividness, it may not have ended up being purely aspirational.) With a Finneas bass line that won’t quit (now is probably not the time to describe that or his closing guitar solo as “tasty”), “Lunch” is the album’s obvious and unabashed banger, and something that will be stirring up lots of fights as it comes up for request on family driving trips all summer long.

The list of songs that qualify as “happier than ever” pretty much ends with those three numbers. Eilish has met some bad guys in her time, and one or more of them get their share of time in the new album, suggesting that the lessons taught in the last album’s “My Future” didn’t all get taken to heart. The opening track, “Skinny,” is the closest connector here to a ballad like the masterful Oscar winner “What Was I Made For”,” but it’s really reprising several themes left over from the previous album: body image, the trappings of fame, and how significant others might be either attracted or repelled by proximity to the spotlight. Possibly alluding to a partner who didn’t enjoy being publicly connected to her, Eilish sings, “You said I was your secret / And you didn’t get to keep it /And the internet is hungry for the meanest kind of funny / And somebody’s gonna feed it.” Frankly, it’s kind of a relief that she doesn’t spend very much of the rest of the album grappling with fame, since she already did that so effectively the last time around … but it’d also seem odd if it didn’t come up at all.

“Wildflower” is the most conventional-sounding song on the record, with a light acoustic guitar start opening up into a full-band sound with live drums. (Andrew Marshall, the siblings’ touring drummer, puts in a surprising amount of time on this album, given how handy Finneas is with the beats.) If there is a skip on this particular collection, “Wildflower” might come closest. But even a song as traditional and “organic” as this one gets set up with a curious and interesting coda after a false ending — one in which Eilish turns out to be sadder about having taken up with a friend’s ex-lover than she made herself out to be in the blither tune that preceded it.

“The Diner” is a delightful and also kind of scary outlier here — a track from the point of view of a stalker, set prosaically to a tune that sounds almost right out of a French café. Coming after the previous album addressed it more succinctly as a verse in “NDA,” “The Diner” goes full-scale into the psyche of a disturbed personality, and you have to admire her cojones in going there, even if probably not everyone would advise her to write a song like this. “Just bring a veil / And come visit me in jail” — that is some serious black comedy. (So is the lyric sheet’s inclusion of a 310-area-code phone number that, if you call it, brings up a voice recording of Eilish saying she can’t hear you.)

But here’s to saving the best for last. There’s a near-straight flush of great songs in the album’s back half that may not get the attention of a “Lunch” but go even farther toward establishing again what a proficient and masterful team Eilish and Finneas are. “The Greatest” may be the most anguished, unadorned and successfully dramatic song here. It begins with some extremely soft plucking — you might mistake it for an Aaron Dessner production, for a minute — before the drums and wailing kick it up a notch a full three minutes in. “Man, am I the greatest,” Billie belts, giving herself a series of gold medals for all the ways she subjugated herself in a relationship, to no avail — “all the times I waited/ For you to want me naked / Made it all look painless… Just wanted passion from you / Just wanted what I gave you.” She was shameless in love, and is no less shameless in coming up with a song that builds to a big finish — it really does live up to its name.

But I was equally bowled over by the closing number, “Blue,” which takes the opposite approach and downshifts in mood and tempo on its way to a poignant and uncertain ending. It’s a wrap-up that marks the reprise of some lyrical ideas that have recurred throughout the album, like the use of the title word in the sense of someone who may be choking from lack of oxygen, not just down in the dumps. The phrase “birds of a feather” gets repeated, from the hopeful song of that title that appeared earlier in the album, but now in a disappointed fashion, alongside the “bird in a cage” line that first appeared in “Skinny.” The coda has her speaking through a masculine-sounding voice filter for a few lines, as if she’s impersonating someone the song might be about — a disconcerting effect. And when she sings “Don’t hate you, but we can’t change you,” it’s a deeply poignant moment, as the singer maybe speaks on the behalf of an entire family community in waving goodbye to someone worthy of empathy who ran out their chances. I don’t know that any record this year will have a spookier closer.

Parts of “Hit Me Hard and Soft” are completely transparent in their blatant themes and melodies, and parts are more mysterious and elusive… which all contributes to it feeling like a much fuller meal than the 10-song track list would indicate. Eilish’s first two full albums arrived as what felt like instant classics. After about a dozen first-day listens, I’m not certain if this album counts as that or not. But I do know I can’t wait to dive into it about 50 more times. Eilish and Finneas are as good a combo platter of songwriter/record-makers as anyone doing it today, and their willingness to change things up — between albums; within an album; within a song — has put them on a hell of an introductory roll. As the song says, it “might not be forever / But if it’s forever / It’s even better.”

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