‘Hit Me Hard & Soft’ Review: Billie Eilish Dares To Write (Twisted) Love Songs

By Jon Pareles
New York Times
Billie Eilish performs onstage during her 'Hit Me Hard and Soft' album release listening party in New York City. Photo / Getty Images

Hit Me Hard and Soft, Billie Eilish’s third album, is both concise and far-reaching.

“Twenty-one took a lifetime,” Billie Eilish, 22, sings in Skinny, the song that opens her third album, Hit Me Hard and Soft.

Any woman her age could say that; it’s just maths. But even before she

Eilish has both the time-honoured musicianship that awards shows admire and the metanarrative savvy of her digital-era generation. Countless imitators have learned from — and been emboldened by — her blend of raw revelations, graceful melodies and wily productions, abetted by her brother and songwriting partner, Finneas.

Their historically grounded pop recombines musical theatre, parlour songs, punk, folk, electronica, soundtracks, bossa nova, industrial rock and more. Eilish brings to all of them the poise of a vintage crooner: the capacity to float above beats and jolts, to treat a microphone as a confidant. Her voice can be breathy and intimate or eye-rolling and sardonic; at very strategic moments, she reveals her power to belt.

Eilish’s 2019 debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, mapped Gothic nightmares, adolescent obsessions and lingering traumas along with an occasional giggle. Her second, Happier Than Ever in 2021, reacted directly to the attention, shock, exploitation, stalking, exhaustion and newfound power that success brought her.

Skinny is a hushed update on Eilish’s superstardom. “Am I acting my age now?/Am I already on the way out?,” she sings, along with thoughts on her body shape, finding nontoxic love, her sense of isolation and a resigned reaction to social media: “The internet is hungry for the meanest kind of funny/and somebody’s gotta feed it.”

Yet even as Skinny connects back to Happier Than Ever, it’s a transition — a parting glance as Eilish moves from her very individual situation toward her version of more generalised pop songwriting.

For an artistically self-conscious hitmaker such as Eilish, the proverbially “difficult” third album calls for self-redefinition, rethinking the past and challenging fair-weather fans. On Hit Me Hard and Soft, Eilish and Finneas further expand their sonic territory, revelling in electronics and plush subtleties, while they alternately honour and warp pop structures. At the same time, Eilish takes on a more conventional assignment: to write songs, particularly love songs, that don’t have to be all about her.

The album is a concise, 10-song set, a deliberate contrast to prolix streaming-era albums like the ones released lately by Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. Eilish chose not to put out advance singles, and she has urged fans to listen to the album as a whole, like an analogue-era LP instead of a track list to be cherry-picked. Just in case 10 songs seems ungenerous rather than disciplined, Eilish makes a pre-emptive wisecrack; tacked on the end of the last song, Blue, a seemingly casual Eilish asks, “So when can I hear the next one?”

Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

The album hits more soft than hard. For much of it, Eilish follows through on her whispery Oscar-winning ballads, No Time to Die and What Was I Made For? She also takes up the craft of the love song, though she keeps her own peculiar twists.

Birds of a Feather, a declaration of lifelong love, could almost be a wedding-party song. “I don’t think I could love you more,” Eilish sings amid puffy major chords, a tinkly keyboard hook and a steady but unobtrusive beat, joined by radiant girl-group harmonies. But a closer reading reveals Eilish’s persistent morbid streak: “I want you to stay till I’m in the grave/Till I rot away dead and buried.”

Eilish is even more poppy and upbeat in “Lunch,” with hand claps and a thumping beat as she sings about being infatuated with a girl — “She’s the headlights, I’m the deer” — and declares, “She dances on my tongue/Tastes like she might be the one.”

Of course, Eilish gives equal time to love’s downsides. In The Greatest, the singer puts on a brave face as she’s ignored and rejected by the object of her affection. She sings with quiet patience over a pizzicato string-quartet arrangement, only to explode near the end. “All the times I waited for you to want me naked,” she sings in a shattering crescendo. “I made it all look painless — man I am the greatest. The greatest!”

In the wry L’Amour de Ma Vie, Eilish belatedly admits that her ex wasn’t the love of her life. “I told you a lie,” she sings with an unrepentant lilt; still, she sounds a little miffed that “you moved on immediately.” The song starts out skeletal and torchy, turns into an understated strut and then mutates completely: first with muffled electronic effects and then, out of nowhere, with a pumping EDM beat and Auto-Tuned vocals, as Eilish taunts: “You were so mediocre and we’re so glad it’s over now.”

That’s the swerve into the album’s final, more experimental stretch. In the multipart Bittersuite, the singer finds herself in a furtive affair — “I can’t fall in love with you/No matter how bad I want to” — as her voice is surrounded and eventually swallowed up by shifty, spooky electronics.

Blue pulls together the album’s through lines, picking up lyrics from the other songs. It begins as a hooky pop tune about lost love: “I’d like to mean it when I say I’m over you/But that’s still not true,” Eilish sings over oohing, aahing backup vocals. But midway through, the song dissolves into an eerie, glacial ballad about a someone scarred by a damaged childhood: “I don’t blame you/But I can’t change you,” Eilish croons, as a siren wails from deep in the mix; at the end, a string quartet takes over with a wordless dirge.

In that song, and for a good part of the album, Eilish turns her gaze toward characters outside herself and sets aside easy pop satisfactions. She has earned the prerogatives of a superstar, and on Hit Me Hard and Soft, she’s using them.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Jon Pareles


More music

The latest hits, album reviews and fascinating profiles.

On ‘The Tortured Poets Department’, Taylor Swift could use an editor. Over 16 songs (and a second LP), the pop superstar litigates her recent romances.

On her new album ‘Deeper Well,’ Kacey Musgraves is closer to fine. The country singer’s fifth album is a study in quiet thoughtfulness rooted in gratitude.

Style liaisons: In conversation with Erny Belle, the country-pop-alt-folk star looking to the stars. On her new album, the artist seeks influence (and sparkling style) from the ethereal.

Cher on her first Christmas LP, a new beau and 25 years of ‘Believe’. The superstar talks about finding her recording voice again.

Romy Madley Croft is (finally) dancing on her own. The final member of the xx to release a solo album reveals her love of pop club music.

Unlock this article and all our Viva Premium content by subscribing to 

Share this article: