Album Review: Billie Eilish – HIT ME HARD AND SOFT

[Darkroom/Interscope; 2024]

Billie Eilish doesn’t make calm music. Quiet maybe, low-tempo a lot of the time, but all of it filled with a deep sadness, an antsy uneasiness, or at her most fun an air of posturing. All of it is very fitting for arguably the first true Gen Z star, and someone who wrote the bulk of her catalogue thus far about the teenage experience. Her self-aware melancholy reached new heights with last year’s unexpected hit “What Was I Made For”, which behind its Barbie-pink sheen was the ultimate inward look at how her life in the public eye twisted her sense of self. In it she sang “something I’m not / but something I can be / something I wait for / something I’m made for” – clearly the words of a woman looking for the next step in her life.

In this context, third album HIT ME HARD AND SOFT arrives to redefine Billie Eilish. She is grown, she is in love, she is queer, she is learning from her mistakes. Opener “Skinny”, reportedly also a product of the “What Was I Made For” sessions, brings a maturity to the self-doubt that leaves room for a glimmer of self-love. Only three albums in, her asking “Am I already on the way out?” atop the sparse guitar instrumentation is a moving bit of vulnerability. The focus, however, lingers on the line “But the old me is still me and maybe the real me / and I think she’s pretty”. Rediscovering and loving herself is Billie Eilish’s new raison d’être.

On that note, “Lunch”, with its open queerness, is undeniably something new. The indie rock sound is certainly familiar, but Eilish manages to bring a unique edge to it. Explicit lines like “You need a seat I’ll volunteer” show her having a kind of weightless fun hitherto unknown in her work. Lovestruck Billie Eilish is a new mode, and one she executes with excellence. The peppy “Birds Of A Feather” trades complexity for sincerity. Lines like “I want you to stay til I’m in the grave” and “I’ll love you til the day that I die / til the light leaves my eyes” tether the soft passion presented to the darker imagery common in Eilish’s work, and the resulting impression is that she skipped the filters and wrote about love in the messy way she experiences it. Happy songs are not the norm in her records, but should she choose to change that she has certainly proven she can pull it off.

Most messiness depicted isn’t joyful, however. “Chihiro” is a tale of communication struggles paired with vague references to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Its main attraction remains the immaculately subtle production, with the album’s most infectious bassline alongside sprawling synths that could make Daft Punk jealous, and the vocal performance that puts Eilish’s range and agility in full display.

As a whole, this record sees Eilish showing more of her voice than ever before. “The Greatest” starts with subtle acoustics and builds up to a climax that, while not quite able to escape the shadow of “Happier Than Ever”, is still undeniably effective in capturing the listener, lingering in the feeling of regret of a misplaced effort with lines like “Man am I the greatest / God I hate it / all my love and patience / unappreciated”.

Yet, for all the admirable belts, Billie Eilish the whisperer of woes isn’t gone. Comparatively minimal musically, “Wildflowers” is the most emotionally conflicted tune of the record, as she muses on the experience of being involved with someone after helping someone else get over them. Lines like “You say no one knows you so well / But every time you touch me, I just wonder how she felt” are classic Eilish in how she has never been afraid of putting unflattering feelings on full display.

While simplicity, fun, or more recognizable sounds are welcome, the latter half of HIT ME HARD AND SOFT finds itself in the lengthy genre experiments. “L’amour De Ma Vie” starts as a pleasant guitar-based café tune before launching into a mix of synths and autotune more high energy than even most The Weeknd songs in recent memory. In different ways, both sections bolster the kiss-off anthem themes of the song. If this was an experiment, Billie and brother/producer Finneas can consider it a resounding success. “Bittersuite” meanwhile is a comparatively more languid experiment, starting with sprawling synths before switching to a mid-tempo section with a rhythmic delivery and self-referential lyrics, followed by a coda with darker synths. While interesting, it lacks the feeling of payoff and catharsis found in the album’s better cuts.

Sitting even more awkwardly with the rest is “The Diner”, a cabaret tune sung from the perspective of a stalker. Unserious production is not new coming from the woman who sampled an episode of The Office and the lyrics offer an interesting exploration of the stalker character, but it’s a song that feels extremely out of place in what is otherwise Eilish’s most tasteful and musically forward work to date.

Closing the record off is the much more well-fitting “Blue”, a return to the soft indie rock sound, with a verse referencing all previous songs (except “The Diner”). The song switches into a spare piano section, and then into a bass-intensive vocoded section, before the two blend into an outro where the beat is backed by a violin. It is a very pleasant finish that shows the full extent of the chemistry between Billie’s writing and Finneas’ production.

At this point, recommending Billie Eilish records is redundant. She has repeatedly defined the sound of her generation while making herself recognizable primarily through beautiful vocals, well-crafted songs, and impressive attention to detail. HIT ME HARD AND SOFT is another solid offering from Billie and Finneas that will inevitably be showered with acclaim from all avenues. What is important to remember is that Billie Eilish doesn’t court that kind of acclaim, and, while others may claim it, she has yet to call this album her masterpiece. In its cohesive yet creative sound, maturity and vulnerability, what we hear is the potential of a 22-year-old musician who hopefully still has many years of artistic growth and classic songs ahead of her. Billie Eilish doesn’t release records to make history but to express herself authentically, and she has yet to fail to do so in a way that isn’t more impressive and well-rounded than the one before. I for one can’t wait for the next.