Album Review: Billie Eilish, ‘Hit Me Hard and Soft’

    In the era of self-aware pop stars, Billie Eilish knows how to play the game. Despite claiming, in an interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, that she and her brother Finneas made Hit Me Hard and Soft “without any or much thought of other people,” they immediately seem all too conscious of the ubiquity of ‘What Was I Made For?’, especially since its release arrives just a few months after yearning Barbie ballad made Eilish the youngest two-time Oscar winner in history. Album opener ‘Skinny’ broaches the theme of growing up under public scrutiny through a similarly existential, if less overtly metaphorical, lens: “People say I look happy/ Just because I got skinny/ But the old me is still me and maybe the real me/ And I think she’s pretty,” she sings, before wondering, “Am I acting my age now? Am I already on the way out?” This delicate vulnerability has always marked Eilish’s ballads, but the song is also a reminder of how self-awareness serves not as a tool to handle her image but really the only means of wrestling with it, a trait she still can’t shake off.

    Though it revisits the subject of fame that was at the core of 2021’s Happier Than Ever, ‘Skinny’ effectively introduces Eilish’s new album by meeting us on a human-to-human level. Then, like lovers in a messy relationship, it’s eager to move on – not because it’s dissatisfied with what came before, but because it follows impulse rather than logic. As a whole, Hit Me Hard and Soft is prone to unpredictable shifts, beat switches, and elegant flourishes that are as much a sign of Eilish and Finneas’ musical ambition as they are of an underlying anxiety – it’s cohesive without ever landing on a note of stability, reaches climactic heights without really aiming for catharsis, and cuts songs in multiple parts without always letting each of them breathe. Not only is the siblings’ growth obvious – Finneas is bolder in his production choices as Eilish opens up her songwriting and stretches her vocal abilities – but they communicate it in ways that reflect the uncertain, shapeshifting nature of the love in Eilish’s songs better than her lyrics are able to convey. It’s a loose and ambivalent album that sometimes gets lost in trying to bring disparate elements together; one that, for all its grand gestures, leaves something to be desired.

    In the space of a single song, Eilish and Finneas usually express the paradoxical simultaneity of the album title in quite a linear (if reversed) fashion: tender, then ominous, ecstatic, or downright aggressive. The album generally toes the line between the moody aesthetic of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and the jazzy introspection of Happier Than Ever, and you can tell pretty quickly which direction a song is going to lean in, but its playfulness comes through in the outros. More often than not, they’re as effective as they are unexpected: the one in ‘L’Amour de Ma Vie’, which careens from a groovy R&B ballad to a euphoric club banger, is the most jarring, a “kill-the-main-character-type beat” if there ever was one (though Finneas has used that phrase to describe another highlight, ‘Lunch’). It doesn’t change the tone of the song so much as it sucks the dreariness and subtlety out of its menacing, jagged edges. ‘Bittersuite’, on the other hand, works as little more than an awkward translation of a music pun, slinky and vaporous yet unsure how to drive its point home; it doesn’t help that the lyrics don’t hold much weight, either.

    The songs here also find more dramatic ways to luxuriate in the darkness and inertia that pervaded Eilish’s previous albums. In a Rolling Stone profile, Eilish framed the making of Happier Than Ever as “difficult and confusing” and suggests (like that ‘Skinny’ lyric) that Hit Me Hard and Soft is partly an effort to chase back her When We All Fall Asleep-era self. But though she offers glimpses of it, the new album sounds just as, if not more, difficult and frustrated as its predecessor, especially when she indulges fans in the sinister sounds of her debut, like on ‘The Diner’, where she assumes the perspective of a stalker. At the same time, the arrangements expand on the tasteful sophistication of Happier Than Ever, even incorporating strings by the Attacca Quartet on a few songs. This approach accentuates intimate moments like ‘Skinny’, while the swirling synths that pulse through ‘Chihiro’ offer an entrancing conclusion, if not solution, to Eilish’s muted desperation. But it sometimes ends up drowning, instead of evoking the immensity of, the claustrophobic thoughts that run through her mind: when they can’t find a way out, the instinct seems to be to go big, delivering back-to-back crescendos on ‘Wildflower’ and ‘The Greatest’ to the rather obvious point of fatigue.

    But Eilish and her team are canny – and, naturally, self-aware – about every other sequencing decision. She only jumps into her trademark whisper on ‘The Diner’ after proving her vocal chops, in the form of some impressive belting, on ‘The Greatest’. The upbeat ‘Birds of a Feather’ injects some much-needed colour and sincerity before a run of songs brimming with irony and conflict. And then there is, of course, the transition from ‘Skinny’ to ‘Lunch’, which is scintillating not only for how confident and lustful the latter song is, but the sheer giddiness with which Eilish delivers lines like “I bought you something rare/ And I left it under… Claire” and the instantly quotable “It’s a craving, not a crush.” At just three minutes, ‘Lunch’ wastes no time, but Eilish revels in an altogether different kind of delight on the final track, ‘Blue’, the longest on the album and the closest thing to ‘A&W’ to actually (probably) win a Grammy. With all its musical and lyrical pieces spliced together, ‘Blue’ is where you can finally hear the and in the album title. “Too afraid to step outside/ Paranoid and petrified of what you’ve heard,” Eilish sings, probably to another celebrity. The haunting twist is that, once she and Finneas flip the switch, you’ll probably recognize the feeling, too.

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    In the era of self-aware pop stars, Billie Eilish knows how to play the game. Despite claiming, in an interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, that she and her brother Finneas made Hit Me Hard and Soft “without any or much thought of other people,”...Album Review: Billie Eilish, 'Hit Me Hard and Soft'