Billie Eilish - Hit Me Hard and Soft album review: Forget Taylor and Beyoncé, this is the pop album of the year

 (Ali Tant)
(Ali Tant)

Since the release of her debut single and Soundcloud sleeper hit Ocean Eyes back in 2016, Billie Eilish’s rise from underground artist to global household name has been both stark and sudden. Upon the release of her third album, Hit Me Hard and Soft, she is easily one of the biggest pop stars in the world: but does this refreshingly succinct, 10-track album live up to the huge hype around her previous two?

The release of Eilish’s debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? in early 2019 marked the beginning of the tipping point, but her gnarled, creepy spin on pop simmered for a while with her core fanbase before really bubbling over.

The vast, record-smashing crowds during her first ever UK festival run that same summer remain some of the most feral hordes I’ve ever seen; if you weren’t already aboard the Billie train by then, the sight of Reading festival’s biggest main stage crowd of all time headbanging and forming swirling, frenzied pits to her debut’s biggest hit Bad Guy was evidence enough that something very special was happening here. The following year, an 18-year-old Eilish won five Grammys, becoming the youngest ever artist, and first woman, to take home all of the Big Four awards – Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist – in a single night.

Then, came 2021’s Happier Than Ever, a thorny record that shifted from the existential, monsters-under-the-bed anxiety of her debut, to a highly pointed critique of fame. Mostly departing from the influential sound of her debut, this offered up her own skewed take on sweeping, old-timey Hollywood glamour. Eilish sang of fearing stalkers, hating the paparazzi, and struggling to cope with the internet’s vitriol about everything from her body, to her private life. “30 Under 30 for another year,” she sang on NDA, a song about coldly issuing a non-disclosure agreement to a departing hook-up, “I can barely go outside, I think I hate it here.”

And three years on, Hit Me Hard And Soft switches things up yet again. Though opener Skinny pulls on similar threads to Happier Than Ever (and indeed Eilish’s Oscar-winning Barbie song What Was I Made For?) pairing gently picked guitar and a humming orchestral finale with a critique of toxic beauty standards and vicious online commentary (“the internet is hungry for the meanest kind of funny and somebody’s gotta feed it” she sings, as the roar of a crowd dissipates) it is an outlier in a record which is otherwise largely focused on love, lust, and the accompanying heartbreak and fall-out that often comes with this territory.

It feels deliberate that Eilish follows Skinny with a song called Lunch; a handclap and euphemism-laden song about lust and craving. “You need a seat? I’ll volunteer,” she smirks, shortly after declaring that she’d like to “eat that girl for lunch.” It sets a fun and decidedly carefree tone, which gradually morphs into something increasingly tangled and cinematic. Living up to its title, Hit Me Hard and Soft flits between harsher-hitting dance-pop, dramatic veers into classical influences, and paired back, emotive moments; often within the space of a single song.

L’amour De Ma Vie (French for Love of My Life; a title Eilish quickly reveals is a lie she told someone) may start out as a waltzing, old-timey sounding confession of deceit, but then the proverbial pinger hits. What follows is wonderfully unexpected; two minutes of thumping, Charli XCX-coded, heavily-autotuned hyper-pop.

The Greatest pulls off a similar sleight of hand, while drawing on an entirely different palette of influences. A beast of a track that builds and builds in a similar fashion to Happier Than Ever’s epic title track, its spare foundations rise up into a climactic outpouring. The Diner’s lurching, goblin-mode melodies, which feel like they’re wrestled out of a fairground’s haunted house, are perhaps the nearest thing to the eerie sound of 2019’s debut.

And stunning closer Blue tees up for a thumping sad-banger (“I’d like to mean it when I say I’m over you, but that’s still not true, and I’m still so blue”) before serving up a evolving blend of skittering trip-hop, and heavenly, dizzying strings that spiral upwards.

Lyrically, Blue nods back once more to the “bird in a cage” allusion to fame in Skinny, bringing things full circle as Eilish hints at a love interest who understands her highly unique world. “And I could say the same ‘bout you,” she sings in pitched-down vocals, “born blameless, grew up famous too.”

Even more intriguing, Blue ends with what feels like a mischievous hint: “but when can I hear the next one?” Could a successor be landing sooner than we think?

Constantly pinballing between imaginative curveballs, there are surprises around every corner of this album. While Happier Than Ever centred on an incredibly specific, unrelatable narrative from under the glaring spotlight, this deals in far more universal themes. Harbouring a giddying crush or feeling hopelessly insecure about the spectre of somebody’s beautiful ex are hardly original subjects, but this is sort of the point; and besides, FINNEAS’ production does very little by the book.

In a year marked by baggy, poorly-curated, unexciting and frankly complacent releases from some of mainstream pop’s biggest stars, this kind of originality and risk-taking feels particularly welcome. Sure, we’re only halfway through the year, but so far, Eilish’s best album yet is miles ahead of the rest of the pop pack.

Hit Me Hard and Soft is out May 17