Review: Eilish's 'Hit Me Hard and Soft' is zealous outsider pop in a league of her own 2
This album cover image shows 'Hit Me Hard and Soft' by Billie Eilish. Darkroom-Interscope via AP
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Music review: Billie Eilish's 'Hit Me Hard and Soft' is zealous outsider pop in a league of her own

This is an album meant to be heard and enjoyed in full, working contrary to the current single-centric model of the music industry.
Maria Sherman, Associated Press | May 17 2024

“Am I acting my age now?” Billie Eilish, 22, wonders aloud on the opening track to her ambitious third album, “Hit Me Hard and Soft.”

"Am I already on the way out?”

The 10-track release sees a once-in-a-generation pop performer once again rewriting the rules: If Eilish’s first record introduced the world to her brilliant horror-pop, with its macabre humor, off-kilter beats and teenage Invisalign slurps, and her second wiped away those black tears for pop crooning and bossa nova ruminations on the expectations of fame, her third is an amalgamation of both, with bold new surprises.

“Hit Me Hard and Soft” proves Eilish to be an outsider in contemporary pop in a few ways: This is an album meant to be heard and enjoyed in full, working contrary to the current single-centric model of the music industry. And she earns that distinction, with a fuller sound, courtesy her brother, producer, and lifelong collaborator Finneas O’Connell, now joined by Andrew Marshall on drums and the Attacca Quartet on strings.

Opener “Skinny” launches into the saccharine falsetto of her award-winning “Barbie” ballad “What Was I Made For?” The song’s messaging, too, has a similar kind of resonance — she tackles body image, singing “People say I look happy / Just because I got skinny" — echoing her short film and spoken word interlude “Not My Responsibility” from 2021's “Happier Than Ever.”

A string section carries “Skinny” to its coda, harking back to Eilish’s performance of her “Barbie” song at the 2024 Oscars, where she was joined by an orchestra.

From that point onward, everything changes. Fake outs define “Hit Me Hard and Soft.” Think a song is going in one direction? Guess again.

In the last five seconds of “Skinny,” pulsating drums enter the equation, a beat that carries into the sapphic anthem “Lunch” — a soon-to-be fan favorite.

Then there's the languid bass and airy refrain of “away from me" on the midtempo “Chihiro,” likely named after the 10-year-old protagonist in Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli classic, “Spirted Away." That song, like many on the album, begins soft and ends hard. An erotic crescendo of thumping techno-house reaches “Challengers”-level of audial elation.

“The Greatest” could be considered a thematic sequel to “everything I wanted” from her 2019 album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” now with a plucky, nylon string guitar. Three and a half minutes in, it turns into atmospheric, arena rock. Blown-out guitars are executed in a way that feels familiar to the 2021 title track, “Happier Than Ever.”

The deceptively cheery sounding “L’amour De Ma Vie,” too, is true to the sort of the jazzy, lounge moments of her last album. “But I need to confess / I told you a lie,” a clear-eyed Eilish sings. “I said you / you were the love of my life.”

Later, the song ascends into synth-pop bliss – autotuned, distorted vocals in a hyperpop, Eurodance rave — lest anyone forget this is the same pop performer who wrote the industrial track “Oxytocin.”

So where did the “bad guy” singer go? “The Diner,” duh. Here, her haunted carnival ride sound returns. “Don’t be afraid of me,” she opens her gothic vaudeville (now a command rather than the inquiry “Why aren’t you scared of me?” from 2019’s “bury a friend.”) She teases, “Bet I could change your life / You could be my wife.”

Where other artists might pull from their past to make derivative, impressionistic portraits of who they used to be, Eilish evolves her ghosts.

That's true in the breathy closer “Blue,” a sonic reminder of Eilish’s long love of Lana Del Rey records, until it takes a Massive Attack-style trip-hop detour. Two things can be true — and blue — at once.

“Hit Me Hard and Soft” is the loudest Eilish has ever been on record — no longer singing almost exclusively in gorgeous, hushed tones just above an ASMR whisper, buried underneath sweeping, innovative production. Clearly, she's gained the self-assurance to belt above the mix.

The only skip may be the penultimate track “Bittersuite,” which suffers under its own subtlety — something she manages to avoid on the largely-acoustic “Wildflower.” There, her sonic sweetness muddles after a crisp drum fill somewhere in the middle. It’s understated, but effectual. Lyrically, Eilish details a preoccupation with a current partner’s former lover: “Every time you touch me,” she sings. “I just wonder how she felt.”

Throughout the album, Eilish is a bird: She’s a bird in a cage in “Skinny”; she wants to stick together on the baroque pop track “Birds of a Feather,” and by the album’s closer “Blue,” she realizes they were not “birds of a feather,” after all — and she’s back in a cage.

It's a welcomed change from the tarantulas that defined “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”, but it also serves as the ideal metaphor for Eilish's third album. She's motivated by a desire for freedom. And on “Hit Me Hard and Soft,” she's allowed herself to communicate the tension — and let it take flight.