22 May 2024

Review: Hit Me Hard and Soft by Billie Eilish

From The Sampler, 10:59 am on 22 May 2024
Billie Eilish

Photo: Petros Studio

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We’re living through the most self-reflexive time in history. It’s not enough to make art, the art has to be about the art. The internet and its subsequent scrutiny has ensured it.

Blockbuster movies make jokes about their far-fetched plots; TV shows try to out-twist predictions made on Reddit; and pop records trade on listener’s knowledge of the musician’s public persona. Everything has a mirror held up to it by its own creators.

Billie Eilish was famous before she’d even released her debut album, and subsequently it and its follow up were about the experience of being a teenage global superstar. That continues on her latest, Hit Me Hard and Soft, which, alongside the lashings of irony, continues to show Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell as pop purveyors miles ahead of their contemporaries.

‘Birds of a Feather’ might be the purest pop confection here, a ray of light in the midst of Eilish’s usual mix of moodiness and menace. Finneas’ arrangements always go above merely supporting his sister’s vocal - here the rapidly plucked bassline is the song’s secret weapon - and Billie is seemingly unable to perform with less than 100 percent conviction.

Her vocal occasionally creeps away from its trademark whisper, an approach I associate with the way the pair make albums at home, with the volume turned down accordingly. Funded by LA showbiz parents, their aesthetic borrows from DIY artists who home-recorded because it was cheap, but the siblings use it to great effect.

The first time I properly heard Eilish’s music, it was at the insistence of an RNZ sound engineer, who prompted me to listen on headphones.

The music here still has plenty of attention to detail, but if anything, slightly less showy production. On songs like ‘Chihiro’, I’m taken with the effort to be quiet, not just vocally, but in the gently played bassline, and drums that scratch rather than crack. 

It’s named after the protagonist of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, but despite plenty of fan attempts to map its lyrics to the movie, they’re pretty vague. 

Much more cutting are the words in opening track ‘Skinny’. She started the last album with ‘Getting Older’, which featured the line “things I once enjoyed, just keep me employed now”, and here it’s another song that deals head on with her fame. 

She sings, “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 candid and cutting, and quite heartbreaking. She goes on, “the internet is hungry for the meanest kinda funny/ And somebody's gotta feed it.”

Meanwhile ‘The Greatest’ seems to concern an ex, but its late-song pivot into power-ballad draws ironies between the singer’s fame and her love life. When she calls herself “the greatest”, it's firmly tongue in cheek.

That song features an external drummer, as well as a string section, both of which are new additions for Billie and Finneas as they carefully broaden their sound. 

The pair still come across as quite genuine, removed from the studio system, and honestly, quite weird, which I think benefits them both greatly. They also have streams in the billions, and have won two Oscars. 

The album’s most meta touch comes right at its conclusion, when a voice says “when can I hear the next one?”. Eilish, who famously finds albums very challenging to make, knows that nothing will ever satisfy her public. And they know that she knows that.