Billie Eilish review, Hit Me Hard and Soft: Pop star whispers her way to big emotional wallops

Are we finally seeing the artist behind the baggy-goth avatar? Interrogating her public image and fan culture, Eilish delivers a restless album that is equal parts sighing and squalling

Helen Brown
Thursday 16 May 2024 13:00
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At 22 years old, nine-time Grammy winner Billie Eilish releases her third album on 17 May
At 22 years old, nine-time Grammy winner Billie Eilish releases her third album on 17 May (Petros Studio)

Billie Eilish has a cool knack for singing as though she’s inside your head. An intrusive thought of a vocalist, prodding at the darker side of life. On Oscar-winning songs for the Bond and Barbie movies, she slipped beneath the plastic skin of iconic characters to whisper existential doubt. Her delicate, haunting third album, Hit Me Hard and Soft, sees the sad-sweet hushed-croon that she honed on “What was I Made For?” dreamily submerged into a shifting mix of sleepy guitars, sighing cellos, and trancey beats concocted with her brother Finneas in his Astronave studio.

Interviewed for the cover of Rolling Stone last month, 22-year-old Eilish spoke of feeling confined in a panic room of her own celebrity. She’s been a star since the age of 17, after all. And a lot has happened since then: nine Grammys, two Academy Awards, a record-breaking Coachella performance, and millions of new fans. She admits to creating an alter ego to handle the fame, only now to find herself unsure of who she is beyond her baggy-goth avatar. Looking around at her birthday party recently, Eilish realised all the guests were on her staff, so she resolved to get out more and do normal things like visiting Target and taking her pitbull, Shark, on hikes. (Listen out on the record for the jangle of his collar.)

Hit Me Hard and Soft sees her address these issues over the sloshy electric guitar of opening track “Skinny”. As a sampled audience cheers in the background, Eilish asks herself if she’s acting her age and rues the fact that she feels like “a bird in a cage” when she isn’t performing. She croons: “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… and I still cryyy.” There’s a careful precision to Eilish’s pronunciation despite the hushed quiet of her vocals, and a lovely evolution to the song, which shifts towards strings at the end, the melody swooping up with the instruments’ bows before coiling to the end of its rope.

After this gentle introduction, Eilish hits us with the banger “Lunch”, on which she details “a craving not a crush” for a girl who “might be the one”. There’s a confident swagger to Eilish’s brag that she could buy “so much stuff” for the object of her affection. Again, the musical texture moves throughout the track: the bass’n’drum punch augmented with a piano motif, and then the singer’s percussive panting. Although Eilish didn’t put out any advance singles for the album – she and Finneas wanted fans to enjoy it as a complete piece of work; Finneas suggests listening while you cook dinner – “Lunch” is the obvious choice, and you can expect to hear it vibrating from car speakers all summer.

There’s nothing else quite so danceable on the album, but the electronic beats do shift back into gear in several places including on “The Diner”: a cheekily murky number featuring distorted vocals over a shaker-pulse. Diving deeper into the themes of 2021’s Happier Than Ever, which dealt with voyeurism and fan culture, “The Diner” is a ghost train of a tale through which Eilish is pursued by a stalkerish character who comes in through her kitchen. The nightmare rings true for the singer, who just last year obtained a restraining order against a real-life alleged stalker who broke into her home and used her outdoor shower.

The sonic funhouse mirrors are also at work on “Bittersuite” (arriving with a twisted little Caribbean lilt) and “L’amour de ma vie” where guitar notes wobble and warp. Eilish’s voice takes on a creepily girlish tone as the track picks up its scuffed heels halfway through to find a club beat. She offers a more mainstream-sounding bop with “Birds of a Feather”, which shimmers with synths and skips through a cheesy rhyme scheme: feather/ weather/ together. Though this being Eilish, any declarations of love come with their share of gloom: “I want you to stay/ Til I’m in the grave/ Til I rot away… in the casket you carried.”

Other highlights include “The Greatest” – a track that swells from acoustic plucked lo-fi confessional into a belter complete with a squalling big electric guitar solo – and album closer “Blue”, with its moody jazz chanteuse vibe.

Eilish lifted the title of Hit Me Hard and Soft from the name of a sound effect in ProTool’s audio software kit. It’s a perfect fit for a record that whispers its way through a marvellous maze of music to deliver some big emotional wallops.

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