Billie Eilish, Hit Me Hard and Soft: explicit, sapphic and her best work yet

Relentless: Eilish boldly examines her own feelings of guilt, complicity and weakness
Relentless: Eilish boldly examines her own feelings of guilt, complicity and weakness
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“Fell in love for the first time,” is the opening line of Billie Eilish’s third album, her soft, sensuous voice sighing through a delicate haze of acoustic guitars as she sounds a note of ominous regret: “21 took a lifetime.”

Heartbreak is a painful experience, but it is perversely good for songwriters. With Hit Me Hard and Soft, the preternaturally talented Eilish reckons with her first big affair of the heart and its aftermath. Across 10 beautifully wrought songs, running at an economic 44 minutes, Eilish (along with her songwriting and producing sibling, Finneas O’Connell), offers a forensic account of the giddy heights and brutal lows of an obsessional but flawed relationship encompassing lust, adoration, possessiveness, infidelity, jealousy, sorrow, liberation, regret and bitterly hard-earned self-knowledge.

Alongside Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, Eilish is the youngest of a triumvirate of female superstars currently ruling the pop roost. Her gorgeous voice, lyrical acuity and zeitgeisty attitude established the Californian prodigy as a voice of a generation phenomenon whilst she was still in her mid-teens. Now age 22, her latest piece of work represents a kind of artistic coming of age, set to earn its place amongst the all-time great breakup albums.

Eilish sets the scene with highly quotable opening song, Skinny, packed with references to her life that will set social media buzzing. The young singer lost weight and started wearing more revealing clothing between snappy 2019 debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and its follow up up of 21st-century torch songs, Happier Than Ever, in 2021. “People say I look happy / Just because I got skinny” she tartly notes, reasserting her “body positive” ideology with “But the old me is still me and maybe the real me / And I think she’s pretty.” But otherwise the album skips social issues to focus on matters of the heart. There’s no climate change anthems, MeToo moments or woke sloganeering. The big issue here is the same one that has been at the centre of songcraft since the dawn of the pop age.

In today’s gossipy pop culture, it is hard to resist pouring over Eilish’s lyrics in search of clues to the star’s private romantic life: “The internet is hungry and the meanest kind of funny / And somebody’s gotta feed it,” Eilish acknowledges in her opening address. A lot of attention will surely be focussed on the lustily sapphic Lunch, the album’s catchiest electro banger, in which the young star (who has been open about her bisexuality) really gets sexed up on record for the first time, teasing “I could eat that girl for lunch / Yeah she dances on my tongue / Tastes like she might be the one.” It’s a fun track, with an addictive synth bassline that puts it in the league of her biggest hit, Bad Guy, yet it feels like a distraction from the painful issue at hand.

Super duo: Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O'Connell
Super duo: Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O'Connell

The aching Wildflower depicts a complex emotional ménage-à-trois – and also happens to be the name of a company (Wildflower Cases) set up by Eilish’s rock star ex-boyfriend Jesse Rutherford of the Neighbourhood and his ex-girlfriend Devon Carlson. Rutherford is presumably the subject of the wounded, self-lacerating The Greatest (“All the times I waited / For you to want me naked / I made it all look painless / Man am I the Greatest”) and the sharply ironic put down L’Amour De Ma Vie (“You said you’d never fall in love again because of me / Then you moved on almost immediately”).

The enticingly weird and druggy Bittersuite offers an account of the power shifts of a celebrity affair conducted behind hotel doors. Nevertheless, this never feels like a score-settling musical roman-à-clef in the same way as Taylor Swift’s recent relationship opus, The Tortured Poets Department. I think that is because Eilish’s songs keep relentlessly returning to examinations of her own guilt, complicity, weaknesses, strengths and, ultimately, her own personal growth.

Musically, the album offers a refinement of Eilish and O’Connell’s established oeuvres, blending analogue acoustic intimacy with deftly weaved electronica, Eilish’s soft vocals front and centre of a sensuous miasma of her own beautifully treated backing vocals. There’s deft hooks and flowing melodies and subtle rhythmic and atmospheric twists to keep drawing the listener’s attention in, with songs frequently developing new ideas with short diversionary codas.

It takes the listener on a journey that feels like it is moving towards maturity and forgiveness, until finally depositing us at the devastating Blue, an admission of enduring sadness that concludes with a cutting critique of the psychological helplessness of both Eilish’s lover and, ultimately, herself. “You were born bluer than a butterfly / Beautiful and so deprived of oxygen / Colder than your father’s eyes / He never learned to sympathise / With anyone” seems an awful summation of a man’s destiny being shaped by his flawed upbringing. “I don’t blame you / But I can’t change you” Eilish sings, but then adds “They could say the same about me … and I could say the same about you / Born blameless, grew up famous too / Just a baby born blue.”

As a universal colour of sadness, the song title is probably not a reference to Joni Mitchell’s classic 1971 breakup album, Blue. But Eilish has made something rich, strange, smart, sad and wise enough to stand comparison with that classic, a heartbreak masterpiece for her generation, and for the ages.


Billie Eilish, Hit Me Hard and Soft is released Friday 17 May via Darkroom/Interscope

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