Billie Eilish Tightens Her Commanding Grip on Pop Music on HIT ME HARD AND SOFT

Working again with the instrumental talents of her brother Finneas, Eilish’s third album yanks her out of her former teen stardom and gives her the space to reckon with the complexities of her own confusing and liberating adulthood.

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Billie Eilish Tightens Her Commanding Grip on Pop Music on HIT ME HARD AND SOFT

Billie Eilish’s awaited third LP, HIT ME HARD AND SOFT, is exactly the kind of album that pop music needed right now—if only because it’s not a bloated misfire. It doesn’t hurt that Eilish’s latest is also pretty good. Even when the 22-year-old isn’t putting out records, she’s still winning awards and outpacing her peers without missing a step. Her 2019 debut, When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, put her into an icon status that not even her 2017 EP Don’t Smile at Me could have foreshadowed—nabbing her five Grammy Awards out of six nominations, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year (“Bad Guy”). Cut to her sophomore release, Happier Than Ever, and she left the Grammys with zero wins out of seven nominations. Happier Than Ever wasn’t a measure of any kind of sophomore slump, but rather a comedown from an unparalleled genesis. Few artists have ever put out a debut as commercially and critically decorated; Billie Eilish became a phenomenon in 2019 and her star-power hasn’t let up for one moment. And with her multi-hyphenated, generationally talented brother (and Glee alum) Finneas O’Connell helming the producing, engineering and arranging of all of her work, you can expect nothing but above-average work from the duo in perpetuity.

But Happier Than Ever felt like a true example of a pop artist not knowing what direction to turn next after conquering their own league. Eilish’s somber era was confessional, stirring, tortured and delicate—but the music didn’t pack the heft of its predecessor, though songs like “Getting Older,” “NDA” and “Male Fantasy” were (and are) quite good. To understand the power of Billie Eilish, however, requires you to make peace with her being the kind of musician with such a level of no-nonsense talent that she can still rain on your favorite artist’s parade even when she doesn’t have a new album to campaign for. She won Record of the Year for standalone single “Everything I Wanted” in 2021 (the same year she won Best Original Song at the Oscars for “No Time to Die”) and then crushed the hopes of Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa, Miley Cyrus, SZA, Jon Batiste and Olivia Rodrigo by winning Song of the Year for “What Was I Made For?” In other words, it is becoming obvious that every year might very well be Billie Eilish’s year. We better get used to it. She’s won nine Grammys (and two Golden Globes, two Oscars) in five years; her new album, HIT ME HARD AND SOFT, will add to that tally come next February.

Eilish’s 2023 song “What Was I Made For?,” which she composed for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie, became such a titanic ballad that it has almost become larger than the life of the film itself—despite only peaking at #14 on the Hot 100. If you’re like me, then it was the introduction of Eilish’s track in Barbie that broke the emotional seal and brought out the waterworks. But, more than anything else, it felt like a song that was going to greatly shape Eilish’s career moving forward. HIT ME HARD AND SOFT corroborates that theory completely. “Twenty-one took a lifetime,” she sings in the first verse of the album. “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.” It’s a commanding entry point, done up as a slow-burn guitar ballad that cascades into a last-second orchestral monsoon—featuring strings from Andrew Yee, Nathan Schram, Amy Schroeder and Domenic Salerni. Eilish’s vocals are as hushed as they’ve always been, until they’re not. At the song’s halfway point, she steps back from the microphone and lets her natural acapella flourish—saddling runs that would work perfectly on a ‘90s R&B cut.

What “SKINNY” does is make the mission of HIT ME HARD AND SOFT obvious: Eilish’s vulnerability is about to be an unbreakable main character, a product that makes sense in the context of her being the without-a-doubt pop GOAT of Gen-Z music. In a 5-star review, The Daily Telegraph mustered up the notion that HIT ME HARD AND SOFT is “rich, strange, smart, sad and wise enough” to enter conversations with Joni Mitchell’s Blue. I don’t know about all of that, but what can be said about Eilish’s third album is that it will likely set her far apart from her contemporaries as a lyricist. “LUNCH” gets right to the point and confirms as much: “I could eat that girl for lunch,” Eilish sings. “Yeah, she dances on my tongue, tastes like she might be the one and I could never get enough.” We’ve come a long way from the days of Eilish being admonished for queerbaiting in her “Lost Cause” video. After ruminating on her sexuality without any filter in a recent Rolling Stone cover story, she’s arrived on the scene of HIT ME HARD AND SOFT with an absolute club ripper about eating box. “It’s a craving, not a crush.” In Eilish’s world, being queer doesn’t have to be sweet or gentle territory. Sometimes a track as forthright and up in your business about the pleasures of girl-on-girl bedding is necessary. There’s no either/or in Eilish’s music; such urges, melancholy and desires can be both triumphant and liberating and difficult.

And that difficulty follows Eilish throughout the album and especially on “CHIHIRO”—as she puts her love for Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away on display. As Miyazaki’s masterpiece follows the titular Chihiro on her journey towards better understanding the strange and unknowable joys of life (all while trying to get her and her parents back to the human world after entering kami), Eilish uses parallels to the coming-of-age narrative of the film to better serve her own reckonings with abandonment, love and how they are both interwoven within each other. “When I come back around, will I know what to say?” she wonders. “Said you won’t forget my name, not today, not tomorrow. Kinda strange, feelin’ sorrow.” Finneas’ arrangement flutters between the kind of muted drum programming that catalyzed When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and a looping, pulsing synthesizer that balloons so much it drowns out Eilish’s singing. On much of HIT ME HARD AND SOFT, Finneas toys with outros in captivating ways—using them as sequiturs or codas that better serve the overall momentum of the album’s sonic arc altogether, rather than appear like jarring afterthoughts.

“BIRDS OF A FEATHER” sticks out on every listen. It very well might be Eilish’s best song yet—the kind of career highlight you’d expect someone like Clairo to make, existing so far in the pop world that, on paper, it very well might be out of Eilish’s wheelhouse altogether. But Billie attacks the track without fear, and it’s so bubbly that the era of Happier Than Ever all but goes extinct in a flash. The “birds of a feather, we should stick together” is cliché in theory, but Eilish and Finneas land it colorfully. “I said I’d never think I wasn’t better alone,” Eilish continues. “Can’t change the weather, might not be forever. But, if it’s forever, it’s even better.” “BIRDS OF A FEATHER” is a no-frills pop hit that will only continue to grow in majesty and in likability. It’s summery and earnest, as the “I don’t think I could love you more, it might not be long, but baby, I’ll love you ‘til the day that I die” pre-chorus matches the lightness of Finneas’ synthesizers and looping guitar arpeggios, which, along with Eilish’s sugary-sweet singing, sound like a bouquet of immersive, frictionless pop ecstasy.

But where “BIRDS OF A FEATHER” has all the makings of a track that, in five years, will sound just as timeless as it does right now, “WILDFLOWER” and “THE GREATEST” are inconsequential folk-pop songs that leave just as fast as they arrived (though the former does delve into a layered, operatic climax). That’s not to say they aren’t good songs; Finneas’ minimalism works here because it’s not as thin as it could be. His lack of restraint sounds like precision, and he packs as many elements behind his sister’s voice as it requires—and these two midpoints on the album don’t require much beyond some sultry strums, though they certainly do. It’s Billie’s voice that commands your attention—allowing the listener to put their full focus on lines like “Doing what’s right without a reward, and we don’t have to fight when it’s not worth fighting for.”

“L’AMOUR DE MA VIE” is one of most dynamic soundscapes Finneas has ever put together. The way the soft-and-sleek singing Eilish performs—which hits a groove that flourishes somewhere between department store pop (non-derogatory) and beachfront R&B—erupts into a pitch-shifted synth-pop outro will rattle you in a good way. The siblings want to keep the listener on their toes, and “L’AMOUR DE MA VIE” does its best to explore two distinctive scenes in the space of a five-and-a-half-minute vacuum. “But I wish you the best for the rest of your life” sounds like the sweetest “fuck you” that Billie can conjure up; the song’s “kill you with kindness” energy can’t help but fold into its own jaggedness, and the results are frantic, hued with derangement and downright marvelously chaotic.

The penultimate “BITTERSUITE” and finale song “BLUE” show us exactly why Billie Eilish is such an unpredictable but cherished musician in the modern zeitgeist. The former opens on a synth line so thick and loud that you can barely hear Billie’s screams of “I can’t fall in love with you,” while the latter is a six-minute conclusion that shapeshifts from pop goodness to ballad stillness to hip-hop-infused transience. Eilish, evoking the stylings of some of our greatest pop-punk storytellers, uses the album’s last track to make swift callbacks to earlier moments on the tracklist—namely “BIRDS OF A FEATHER.” But she is quick to reference her 2023 smash hit, too, during the couplet “a bird in a cage, thought you were made for me.” “BLUE” refuses to sit motionless, instead reveling in the splendor of its own lawlessness while lines like “You were born bluer than a butterfly: beautiful and so deprived of oxygen” break your heart. It’s an exclamation point on a record packed to the brim with beat switches—from the “WILDFLOWER” vocal outro to the “Hey Jude”-evoking, anthemic upswing on “THE GREATEST” to the glitchy comedown of “CHIHIRO.”

But out of all of HIT ME HARD AND SOFT’s dynamic switches, wall-to-wall catchiness and new vocal experiments, it’s hard to look away from the record’s most glaring accomplishment: Billie Eilish has moved on from her coming-of-age origins and settled nicely into a musical persona that seems to mirror her own authentic self, rather than come across as tailored to the wants of some commercial or critical machine. She’s no longer an 18-year-old walking out of Staples Center in Los Angeles with an armful of Grammy Awards; she’s an irreversibly famous and successful musician who just wants to get down with queer love and have the space to figure out what works and what doesn’t. HIT ME HARD AND SOFT sounds exactly like what being 22 years old felt like, told by someone who has lived a life of grandiose, relentless celebrity since before she was old enough to get a driver’s license but hasn’t let that outmuscle the humanity of herself. There’s no lore to sift through on this record, only Billie Eilish’s attention to the details of everything fleeting around her. Life—and its desires and hardships—is a craving, and it’s plentiful and resounding to hear Billie attempt to untangle it.

2024 has been dominated thus far by pop superstars dropping some of their worst material yet—COWBOY CARTER, The Tortured Poets Department and Radical Optimism, to name the loudest culprits—but HIT ME HARD AND SOFT has rewritten the year’s narrative by not overstaying its welcome. Who could have guessed that, nowadays, a 40-minute album runtime would be such a breath of fresh air? Finneas’ arrangements are so tight and complimentary to Eilish’s own macabre tendencies and unfiltered anecdotes that it’s impossible to not be charmed by the sheer lack of fuss this record expounds. “Am I acting my age now? Am I already on the way out?” Eilish soberly asks on “SKINNY.” Once “BLUE” ends, the answer is, unequivocally, yes, followed by a swift no.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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