Billie Eilish Is More Playful, More Pissed, and as Brilliant as Ever on ‘Hit Me Hard and Soft’

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Credit: William Drumm*
Credit: William Drumm*

“You don’t wanna know how alone I’ve been,” Billie Eilish sings halfway through her excellent new album, Hit Me Hard and Soft. That sums up the paradox of her life in one line — a shy weirdo kid who became a mega-pop star too fast, a romantic who’s never had the luxury of a private love life, a target for misogyny since her mid-teens. At 22, she’s already rewired the way pop is experienced. But she has the power to get the whole world on her side even when she’s fighting it off.

Eilish blew up at 17 with her blockbuster debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, her diary of creepy-crawly teen nightmares, with her brother/co-conspirator Finneas O’Connell. But after five years at the top, she’s still got the eccentric flair she brought to her music when she was just a kid messing around with bedroom pop for kicks and giggles. As she sings in the opener, “Skinny,” “The old me is still me and maybe the real me.”

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It’s been three years since her last album, the superbly angsty catharsis Happier Than Ever. The new album feels very different — more playful, more pissed. The music ranges from plaintive synth-pop like “Birds of a Feather” or “Blue” to confessional ballads like “The Greatest” or “Skinny.” But even in a great pop year that’s already been a super-chunk cluster-bunch of bold statements for mega-pop queens, Hit Me Hard and Soft stands out as something uniquely strange.

Fame still feels like a trap for Eilish — she sings about feeling “like a bird in a cage” in both the first and last songs here. Hit Me Hard and Soft is her coming-of-age album but also her coming-out album, with a nonstop rush of emotional and musical quick-change swerves. She moves from depression, isolation, and misery to the explicit electro-goth lust of “Lunch,” where she raves over a muse who’s “a craving, not a crush.” It’s got the mischief of “Bad Guy,” except now she’s chanting, “You need a seat, I volunteer/Now she’s smiling ear to ear/She’s the headlights, I’m the deer.”

“Skinny” is an intense opener that picks up where Happier Than Ever left off, but with the same vulnerable intimacy of her heart-wrenching Barbie ballad, “What Was I Made For?” The lyrics hint at body-image trauma as well as a relationship ruined by public scrutiny — as she sings, “The internet is hungry for the meanest kind of funny, and somebody’s gotta feed it.”

Billie and Finneas are one of the great sibling mind-meld duos in pop history, always goading each other on to bigger surprises. They make almost all the sounds here themselves, though Finneas’ string arrangements are played by the Attaca Quartet — a rare moment where outsiders get invited into the family’s private sound-world. It’s a tight, linear album, with an old-school pace of 10 songs in 44 minutes, none especially opaque or inscrutable, yet none moving in a straight line. The title “Bittersuite” sums up how the album flows, with songs that often shift halfway through and lurch into a totally different song. “L’Amour de la Vie” starts out as a droll Edith Piaf cafe ballad, then flips into a high-energy disco thump; “Bittersuite” itself starts out on the dance floor, suddenly slows down, then ends with a morbid synth drone, like a soundtrack to HAL 9000’s demise.

“Birds of a Feather” is a poignant Eighties-flavored love song that could pass for vintage Sade or George Michael, with Eilish’s most emotionally voracious vocals. “I want you to stay till I’m in the grave,” she pleads. “Till I rot away, dead and buried/Till I’m in the casket you carry.” But the most powerful song here is “The Greatest,” where she goes from a whisper to a scream as she testifies about adult heartache, almost snarling, “All the times I waited/For you to want me naked/I made it all look painless.”

Three years ago, on Happier Than Ever, one of her most vulnerable moments came in “My Future,” where Eilish sang, “I’m in love with my future/Can’t wait to meet her.” Her future self has turned out to be a real piece of work — everything the 19-year-old Billie could have hoped for. Hit Me Hard and Soft makes you marvel at how far she’s traveled as a pop artiste. But it’s also a propitious omen that the greatest Billie is yet to come.

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