Billie Eilish: Hit Me Hard and Soft review – still the great outlier of American pop

Billie Eilish’s third album opens with a track called Skinny. It features a hushed electric guitar figure supporting a lyric filled with very Billie Eilish topics: bitter recriminations about a failed relationship, body dysmorphia, depression and the pressures of finding vast global fame while barely out of your teens. The latter was a theme that preoccupied Eilish’s last album, 2021’s Happier Than Ever, a grimly believable depiction of adolescent stardom in a world of constant online commentary and confected controversy. With its marked shift in image and sound, it succeeded in creating yet more commentary and controversy. That album’s reception is another topic that seems to haunt Skinny. “Am I acting my age now?” she wonders aloud. “Am I already on the way out?”

It’s presumably a reference to the fact that Happier Than Ever sold noticeably less than Eilish’s debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?: it only went platinum in 10 countries as opposed to 16. And perhaps also to the idea that, with its relative lack of the kind of electro-goth bangers that had propelled her to fame, and her accompanying transformation from baggy skateware-clad sulker to vampy 50s blonde, Happier Than Ever had lost the room.

But given what Eilish had to say about success, dialling down the hysteria a little was perhaps the whole point, and Hit Me Hard and Soft – which has no advance singles – initially proceeds in much the same vein. Its opening tracks are understated; mood is sunlit rather than crepuscular, with acoustic guitars softly strummed or fingerpicked; there are low-key string arrangements, and Chihiro has a muted, mid-tempo house pulse. The production, as ever by Eilish and brother Finneas O’Connell, deals in subtlety and hidden detail: muffled backing vocals and sound effects are buried so deep in the mix that they’re only really noticeable if you’re wearing headphones, like the aural equivalent of catching something out of the corner of your eye.

The album tellingly reserves its brightest hues for Lunch, a track that presses a distorted drum machine, ska-inflected guitar and a sudden explosion of noisy, EDM-inspired bass into the service of a lascivious thumbs-up for lesbian sex. Eilish, who built her image on a very recognisable kind of teenage surliness – in photographs taken during her rise to superstardom, she tended to fix the camera with a look of uncomprehending contempt – sounds as if she’s grinning as she sings it.

Cover art for Hit Me Hard and Soft. Photograph: William Drumm/AP

There are beautiful melodies here, and some very distinctive lyrical touches – on Birds of a Feather, she pledges her love until “I rot away, dead and buried … in the casket that you carried”. But you do start wondering if Hit Me Hard and Soft might not be a little too opaque for its own good. Wildflower slips in one ear and out the other pleasantly enough, an underwhelming state of affairs given how arresting Eilish’s music has proved in the past.

But, as if on cue, the album suddenly shifts focus midway through. The temperature drops, the atmosphere turns more discomfiting, the songs become longer and more wilfully episodic. Subject to jarring shifts in mood and tempo, they frequently end up somewhere completely different from their starting point. The soft rock of L’Amour de Ma Vie is usurped by a clipped beat and burbling synth bass that recalls Joe Jackson’s 1982 hit Steppin’ Out, but not before Eilish’s vocal is warped to the point where she sounds as though she’s retelling the story of a doomed love affair in a mocking baby voice. The Diner melds creepy vocals to an echo-drenched reggae-esque lope, then suddenly slows down, re-emerging as an eerie show tune as the lyrical saga of unrequited love turns murderous. The thick synthesiser chords of Bittersuite swell until they overwhelm the song entirely in a dark, instrumental coda. Blue seems to concern a relationship with another wounded celebrity – “too afraid to step outside, paranoid and petrified of what you’ve heard” – alternating between empathy and the sense that the celebrity is simply too damaged to deal with: the rhythm track sounds similarly indecisive, spluttering in and out of life to haunting effect.

Odd lines and images from earlier lyrics keep reappearing in the second half of the album, as if the later songs here are commenting on, or updating, the previously depicted events. The effect is both enigmatic – when a line from Skinny about feeling “like a bird in a cage” reappears in the completely different setting of Blue, it isn’t clear whether it’s reiterating or undercutting the point – and compelling: what initially seems straightforward becomes deeper and murkier.

An album that keeps wrongfooting the listener, Hit Me Hard and Soft is clearly intended as something to gradually unpick: a bold move in a pop world where audiences are usually depicted as suffering from an attention deficit that requires instant gratification. Hit Me Hard and Soft isn’t in the business of providing that. In its place, it offers evidence that, among the ranks of mega-selling pop stars, Billie Eilish remains a fascinating law unto herself.

Hit Me Hard and Soft is released on 17 May


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