Music

Billie Eilish’s Audacious ‘Hit Me Hard and Soft’ Completes Sublime Coming-of-Age Trilogy: Critic’s Take

Billie Eilish begins and ends Hit Me Hard and Soft, her endlessly impressive third studio album, as a caged bird. The haunting imagery reframes her idiosyncratic introspection in the context of a youth that is inextricably tied to — and sometimes nearly completely consumed — by her towering fame. Five years removed from the seismic success of her nightmare-dwelling, Grammy-sweeping debut studio album, Eilish comes back home to herself on this succinct 10-song set, while also further exploring the shape-shifting song structures she explored on 2021’s Happier Than Ever

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In a recent Rolling Stone profile, Eilish remarked, “I feel like this album is me… it feels like the When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? version of me. It feels like my youth and who I was as a kid.” And she’s right: The adolescent verve of her debut LP – which she often eschewed on the more reserved, plaintive Happier — returns in the form of pulsating synths and pitched-up vocal takes, but with a melancholic maturity that she’s gleaned from spending crucial years in the scorching heat of the limelight. Those years were also hounded by stalkers and body image woes, while she was exploring her sexuality and learning to balance self-preservation with selflessness in romantic relationships – all of which she unpacks across her new record. 

With brother Finneas once again joining her at the helm, Hit Me Hard and Soft creeps into being with “Skinny,” a finger-picked guitar ballad that returns to the breezy sonics of Happier Than Ever to dismantle the destructive false equivalency of thinness and happiness. “Twenty-one took a lifetime/ 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 coos forlornly, before going on to call out society’s hunger for wickedness (“The internet is hungry for the meanest kinda funny/ And somebody’s gotta feed it”). Here, Eilish’s voice takes on a quietly choral quality, as if she’s singing in an empty underwater cathedral; her tasteful riffs on the back half preview the unexpected parts of her range she’ll flaunt later on the record, while the intentionality of her phrasing recalls the incisive heartbreak of 2023’s Oscar-winning tearjerker “What Was I Made For?” 

From there, Eilish launches into “Lunch,” an immediate standout and clear radio single. Reminiscent of the winking whimsy of 2019’s Billboard Hot 100-topping “Bad Guy,” “Lunch” is a glorious queer awakening. The hook is obviously sticky, but Eilish’s greatest display of her handle on quirky pop-isms comes in the lyric, “Said, ‘I bought you somethin’ rare/ And I left it under “Claire”’” — a playful rhyme that builds on her admission of alias usage in 2021’s “Billie Bossa Nova.” “Lunch” unquestionably returns Eilish to the bass-driven feel of her debut, but she’s older, wiser, and freer – from both her own mind and outside expectations. 

“Chihiro” — named after the main character of Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away – continues the reemergence of her debut’s aesthetics, with a symphony of synths slowly swelling into a shimmering haze. “Open up the door, can you open up the door,” she asks repeatedly, nodding to both her own closet and the walls put up by a lover she is willing to sacrifice anything for. In the song’s refrain, Eilish employs falsetto that, at its peak, sounds just short of manic, emphasizing the frantic reverberations of obsession, the overarching theme of Hit Me Hard and Soft. Across the album, she delivers a virtually peerless understanding of how to manipulate her voice to best amplify the storytelling of her lyrics. The wistful, conversational tone she opts for on “Birds of a Feather” morphs into a breathtaking display of range and balance across “Wildflower” and “The Greatest.”

On “Wildflower,” Eilish poses the question: Is it crossing the line to get with the person you’re helping another person get over? At 22 years old, she’s finally understanding what makes love so enticing – its innate messiness and tension. Drawing on the soft rock of Fleetwood Mac, Billie embodies the ethereal longing of the band’s biggest classics, pairing her emotive vocals with some of the most gut-wrenching narratives of her career: “But every time you touch me, I just wonder how she felt/ Valentine’s Day, cryin’ in the hotel/ I know you didn’t mean to hurt me, so I kept it to myself,” she croons, effectively rejecting verbosity for simplicity. The steady build of the song’s instrumentation provides the perfect segue into “The Greatest,” which is arguably Eilish’s strongest, most arresting vocal performance yet. 

The complexities of love and obsession and the ways in which the two concepts inform each other are laid bare in “The Greatest,” with her voice capturing the devasting self-pity that comes with realizing a stark imbalance of love and affection in a relationship she’d do anything to maintain. It’s a harrowing tale through which Billie eventually finds some semblance of peace in the song’s cathartic, string-laden breakdown. By its close, Billie finally accepts that her commitment to the relationship means that she deserves a partner who will match the depths of her love and patience. “I shouldn’t have to say it/ You could’ve been the greatest,” she sings. Billie isn’t philosophizing anything new in regard to romance and relationships, but you can hear the youthful naïveté fracturing in her tone. Through her eyes, it’s all brand new. 

After that brief detour through Happier Than Ever-esque pop-rock amalgamations, hints of her debut return. “L’Amour de Vie” blends a Édith Piaf-inspired groove with a post-disco synth-pop explosion that finds Eilish throwing shots at a no-good ex; “Wanna know what I told her/ With her hand on my shoulder?/ You were so mediocre/ And we’re so glad it’s over now,” she smugly taunts. Here, Billie skews apathetic, juxtaposing the song’s rose-tinted title with a story of a former partner who proved anything but the love of her life. 

“The Diner” brings Billie back to the macabre trenches of her Billboard 200-topping debut LP. She assumes the perspective of a stalker, giving us a “Stan” for the 2020s. Probably the darkest moment on the album, “The Diner” pairs a campy carnival-of-horrors feel with lyrics that explore the bone-chilling lengths obsession drives people to. “You’re lookin’ right at me/ I’m here around the clock/ I’m waitin’ on your block/ But please don’t call the cops,” chillingly illustrating the unsettling experience of dealing with manic infatuation mistaken for love. Are we talking about stans, an Eilish ex– or Billie herself? 

The two closing tracks — “Bittersuite” and “Blue” — end the record with a pair of shapeshifters that combine and innovate on the grounding sounds of her first two albums. The former is a musical triptych that blends bossa nova influences with blaring synths, further exploring the conflicting feelings of self-preservation and self-sacrifice. Hotels are a major symbol across Eilish’s lyrical oeuvre, in part because of the demands of her touring life, but mostly because they’re the perfect environment to riff on emotional and physical impermanence. Between “do not disturb” signs and a distinct lack of homelike warmth, hotels amplify how cold clandestine meet-ups can feel. “I’ll see you in the suite/ We can be discrete,” she coos before offering, “L’amour de ma vie/ Love so bittersweet/ Open up the door for me/ ‘Cause I’m still on my knees.”  

“Blue” closes the album in the spirit of 2019’s “Goodbye” and 2021’s “NDA.” Eilish alludes to the titles and lyrics of the other tracks on the album – save for “The Diner” because that’s not from her perspective… right? — and draws on synth-rock to internalize the fact that she can understand her ex-lover’s troubled past without holding herself responsible for their “saving” or “fixing.” It’s heady stuff for sure, but she brings the whole affair back to the light with the cheeky question, “But when can I hear the next one?” 

Whether that’s a tease for a rumored companion album or a reference to how quickly we collectively move through new works of art, Hit Me Hard and Soft stands as the sharpest volume of of Eilish’s three-album bildungsroman. With each of her studio albums, Eilish has soundtracked the breakneck speed of the maturity and life-experience arcs you experience between age 18 and 21. Her question at the close of her latest is as tongue-in-cheek as it is forward-thinking; now that she’s completed the odyssey of adolescence, where does the openness of the rest of her 20s take her? 

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