Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Billie Eilish Hit Me Hard And Soft


What do we want from Billie Eilish? Debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? culminated a long string of EPs and singles that made Eilish a teenage star. It was the start of the alt-pop wunderkind’s career, but also kind of the end. An idiosyncratic inquiry into the dark side of modern girlhood, When We All Fall Asleep was a masterpiece that achieved a level of popularity that ruined Eilish’s life. Happier Than Ever was a navigation of the pain that came with that fame. Her music was still jittery, accented with eerie beats and unpredictable soundbites, but it was clear that the cost of her meteoric rise was the childlike wonder of her music. Something had been lost. This is true of Hit Me Hard And Soft, too.

When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was designed for bedrooms; it was a collection of glitchy anthems for girls to doomscroll to in bed. Happier Than Ever was music for TikTok and radio play. Hit Me Hard And Soft strives for arenas. Some of these songs are big. But is that what we want from Eilish? Back-to-back tracks “Wildflower” and “The Greatest” both build into massive storms — reaching great heights, sounding colossal and towering — but there’s nothing about either song that’s striking aside from this sonic largeness, and therefore nothing to warrant it, either.

What comes before those tracks is much more pleasurable. The opener “Skinny” is a show-stopper, taking advantage of the beauty of her breathy vocal delivery that turned her Barbie ballad “What Was I Made For?” into an unlikely juggernaut. “Skinny” is incredibly moving. The guitar chords are despondent, and the lyrics hit like gut-punches: “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.” The poignant, confessional ballad finishes with a flourishing string arrangement before whirring synths transition into the titillating “Lunch,” an anthem about eating a girl out, much more upbeat than Chappell Roan’s “Casual.” It’s groovy and enticing; gasps are interspersed throughout, serving as bewitching instruments, and Eilish’s personality and attitude make the song worthwhile, as well as one-liners like “It’s a craving not a crush.”

Eilish’s strength has always been alluring atmospheres, and the following track, “Chihiro,” takes advantage of that. She’s best in this environment — minimalist, acerbic, futuristic. Along with her signature mumble-whisper, a mischievous bassline serves as the centerpiece, until a videogame-like synth slowly fades in and takes over the whole song as Eilish’s voice rises with it. It’s a five-minute journey that thrives off of unique ambiance; it’s much better than the aforementioned wannabe-hits at the center of the tracklist, which sound like manufactured attempts to recreate the viral moment of the “Happier Than Ever” climax (remember when “I don’t relate to you, no/ ’Cause I’d never treat me this shitty/ You made me hate this city/ And I don’t talk shit about you on the internet” was absolutely ubiquitous?).

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Potential is lost on “Bittersuite.” The ghostly sprawl is propped up on lines too platitudinous to hold any meaning: “’Cause I can’t fall in love with you/ No matter how bad I want to.” There’s an intriguing fade-out, and the tune becomes strung together by a synth that sounds like a Wii sound effect. In whispers, she sings, “You seem so paralyzed/ It’s so romanticized/ If this is how I die/ That’s alright,” which is intense and poetic enough make up for the previous clichés. “L’amour De Ma Vie” is a revenge ballad, seething and smug: “I was the love of your life/ But you were not mine.” It’s also bifurcated, the party hidden in the second half, breaking out into a generic club beat. Its drama is the most invigorating part; Eilish’s voice is drenched in Auto-Tune as she reveals vague details of scandal: “But you should’ve seen it/ The way it went down/ Wouldn’t believe it.” The album would benefit from more of this sense of high stakes. Eilish said that she and Finneas, her brother and producer, “really want a project to be cohesive and make sense, but not just be a repeat and a clone of every other song.” Yet these two tracks both veer into electronic detours halfway through, a forced and formulaic choice that’s nowhere near inventive as she used to be.

On Happier Than Ever’s “Getting Older,” Eilish lulled, “Things I once enjoyed just keep me employed now.” This shows on Hit Me Hard And Soft; despite the evocative title and underwater artwork, the urgency isn’t there, and neither is the flair that distinguishes Eilish from other superstars. It’s an album she made because it’s her job to make albums. Songs like “The Diner” sound confused, grasping for her old sound but not quite getting there. Eilish’s much-missed morbidity permeates the song, which is sung from the perspective of a stalker — presumably a stalker of hers. Yet it still lacks the old restlessness and curiosity, ultimately floundering.

Closing track “Blue” begins beautifully and buoyantly, like the colorful “Birds Of A Feather,” but conventional songs fall flat in Eilish’s hands. To keep “Blue” engaging, Eilish once again slices the song in half, but this time the beat switch is far more successful. The song transforms into a sparse elegy, with Eilish exhaling lyrics that finally prove her skill for laconic, staggering wordplay. “You were born bluer than a butterfly/ Beautiful and so deprived of oxygen,” she lulls. As she sings “I can’t blame you/ But I can’t change you,” a trap beat emerges, “A&W” style, and becomes interlaced with another enriching string arrangement. It’s a savory finale. The cherry on top is when the song ends; Eilish takes a playful jab at her demanding fans with a soundbite that says, “But when can we hear the next one?” — the only goofy moment on the record. If as much heart and risk had been placed in the meat of this album that was placed in the beginning and the end, Hit Me Hard And Soft would actually hit hard.

Hit Me Hard And Soft is out 5/17 on Darkroom/Interscope.

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