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Billie Eilish's 'Hit Me Hard and Soft' is a thrilling return to form for pop's leading weirdo

Callie Ahlgrim   

Billie Eilish's 'Hit Me Hard and Soft' is a thrilling return to form for pop's leading weirdo
Billie Eilish photographed for "Hit Me Hard and Soft."Petros Studio/Courtesy of Darkroom/Interscope
  • Billie EIlish released her third studio album, "Hit Me Hard and Soft," on Friday.
  • The 10-song tracklist is tenacious and experimental, reminiscent of her beloved debut.

Billie Eilish's entrancing new album, "Hit Me Hard and Soft," arrived on Friday after much anticipation, cementing the 22-year-old singer as a true auteur.

Eilish's new sonic direction largely remained a mystery leading up to the album's release. She declined to release any of the album's 10 tracks as singles because she wanted her fans to consume the project as a whole.

"I really don't like when things are out of context," Eilish told Rolling Stone. "This album is like a family: I don't want one little kid to be in the middle of the room alone."

Like her Grammy-winning debut "When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?" and its 2021 follow-up "Happier Than Ever," Eilish's third studio album was cowritten and produced by her older brother, Finneas O'Connell.

O'Connell characterized "Hit Me Hard and Soft" as a return to form after the fantasy and illusion of Eilish's blonde era.

"I feel like this album has some real ghosts in it, and I say that with love. There's ideas on this album that are five years old, and there's a past to it, which I really like," he told Rolling Stone, concluding, "This album was an exploration of what we do best."

Here's our review of each song on "Hit Me Hard and Soft" upon first listen. (Skip to the end to see the songs worth listening to and the album's final score.)

"Skinny" plays like the sequel to "What Was I Made For?"

"Skinny" plays like the sequel to "What Was I Made For?"
Finneas O'Connell and Billie Eilish performed at the 2024 Oscars.      Rich Polk/Variety via Getty Images)

Much like Eilish's Oscar-winning "Barbie" theme, "Skinny" is a feminine ballad that grapples with existential questions.

The lyrics are closely tied to the performative and isolating demands of womanhood, especially as a woman in the spotlight: "Am I acting my age now? / Am I already on the way out? / When I step off the stage, I'm a bird in a cage / I'm a dog in a dog pound."

But unlike "What Was I Made For?" (which I previously ranked as the eighth-best song of 2023), the lasting taste from "Skinny" isn't drawn from Eilish's bitter lyrics, but from her full-bodied vocals.

Eilish's biggest critics have always accused her of whispering in every song. Of course, this is a stylistic choice, not a lack of skill. To suggest Eilish can't sing is to admit you're not paying attention.

That being said, I've been itching for Eilish to push beyond her typical range — to better use her voice as an instrument of expression. She's done this with some of her best songs, including the title track of "Happier Than Ever" and her brilliant Labrinth collab "Never Felt So Alone." In both, Eilish's belts and wails offer a tantalizing glimpse of her true vocal prowess.

The second half of "Skinny" delivers on this promise — and bodes extremely well for the rest of the tracklist.

"Lunch" is a sapphic banger that sees Eilish letting loose.

"Lunch" is a sapphic banger that sees Eilish letting loose.
Billie Eilish debuted "Lunch" during a surprise set at Coachella.      Christina House/Los Angeles Times via Getty Image

Sonically speaking, "Lunch" has almost nothing in common with "Skinny," which creates a curious and thrilling juxtaposition.

In fact, according to O'Connell, "Lunch" is purposely placed as the second track to upend the listener's expectations.

"You go, 'Oh, OK. I understand this world.' Then the drums come in [on 'Lunch'], and it really is the kill-the-main-character-type beat," he told Rolling Stone. "It's like Drew Barrymore being in the first five minutes of 'Scream' and then they kill her. You're like, 'They can't kill Drew. Oh, my God, they killed Drew!'"

The sequence also serves to intensify the second track's impact. "Lunch" is a song with an unruly appetite; the lyrics depict a girl so irresistible, so seductive, that Eilish wants to devour her. Because it arrives right after the anguished restraint of track one ("People say I look happy just because I got skinny… And I still cry"), "Lunch" feels like a rebellion. The song gives Eilish permission to eat, to swell with passion and lust, to take up space; to enjoy her own life.

There's still a patriarchal expectation for women to be small and submissive (and straight). The Eilish we hear in "Lunch" is having none of that.

"Chihiro" is an exhilarating album highlight.

"Chihiro" is an exhilarating album highlight.
Studio Ghibli's "Spirited Away" was released in 2001.      Toho/Max

"Chihiro" is named after the protagonist from Hayao Miyazaki's 2001 film "Spirited Away," a fantastical coming-of-age journey that's been widely celebrated for its multi-layered storytelling and animation style.

Eilish's "Chihiro" is similarly rich. It refuses to follow a traditional song structure, more closely following the ebbs and flows of a DJ's club remix — shimmering, pulsing, and blooming into bursts of heady synths and house beats.

You can tell O'Connell had a blast with this production, and it translates superbly well. During the album listening event at Barclays Center on Wednesday, "Chihiro" earned some of the most delighted shrieks and loudest cheers of the evening.

"Birds of a Feather" casts Eilish as a lovesick heroine.

"Birds of a Feather" casts Eilish as a lovesick heroine.
Billie Eilish hosted a "Hit Me Hard and Soft" listening party at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.      Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for ABA

"Birds of a Feather" is a bright, melodic love song fit for a blockbuster film.

The chorus boasts some of Eilish's finest vocal work to date. She audibly swoons as she declares her devotion ("I'll love you 'til the day that I die! 'Til the day that I die-ee-eeeee! 'Til the light leaves my eyes!"), as if she's prepared to run through an airport or perform a musical number in front of the whole school.

This is her big romantic gesture, and she's giving an award-worthy performance. But because she's Billie Eilish, her love is still tinged with her obsession with morbidity: "I want you to stay 'til I'm in the grave / 'Til I rot away, dead and buried." Even as new layers of Eilish are revealed on this album, she's true to her core.

"Wildflower" is the album's first lull.

"Wildflower" is the album
"Wildflower" is the fifth track on "Hit Me Hard and Soft."      William Drumm

This song is very pretty, but it doesn't stick out to me. Its best quality is the clarity in Eilish's voice; she often struggles with enunciation, but on "Wildflower," Eilish takes great care to articulate her wistful tale. ("I should put it all behind me, shouldn't I? / But I see her in the back of my mind all the time / Like a fever, like I'm burning alive.")

"The Greatest" is the album's emotional peak.

"The Greatest" is the album
"The Greatest" is the sixth track on "Hit Me Hard and Soft."      Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for ABA

"The Greatest" is expertly molded, recalling the structure of "Happier Than Ever."

Both songs start humbly with delicate acoustics, belying the resentment and agony in Eilish's lyrics ("All the times I waited / For you to want me naked / Made it all look painless / Man, am I the greatest").

Both songs weaponize this tension, building toward an intense, gratifying, electric guitar-fueled catharsis.

And, accordingly, both songs can be counted among the crown jewels in Eilish's catalog.

"L'Amour de Ma Vie" will take you by surprise.

"L
"L'Amour de Ma Vie" is French for "Love of My Life."      Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for ABA

Here is what I wrote about "L'Amour de Ma Vie" during my first listen: "After the euphoric high of 'The Greatest,' this really doesn't pack the same punch. I do like the jazzy, swingy tone of Eilish's delivery (it reminds me of 'Billie Bossa Nova'), but if the album has any filler so far, this is it."

Then, I crossed the song's three-and-a-half-minute mark, when "L'Amour de Ma Vie" abruptly morphs from a soft-rock ballad into a thumping rush of '80s synths and warped vocals. Please disregard my previous notes — I stand corrected.

It should be obvious by now that I love a mid-song transition, mostly because I love to be surprised. Although "L'Amour de Ma Vie" doesn't sound anything like Eilish's debut album, the experimental risk is still Eilish-esque and uniquely memorable. Once considered to be pop's weird outsider, Eilish is a full-on pop star now — but with this album, she proves that she's still in touch with those weirdo instincts.

"The Diner" is a welcome callback to Eilish's debut album.

"The Diner" is a welcome callback to Eilish
"The Diner" is the eighth track on "Hit Me Hard and Soft."      Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for ABA

Now this sounds like Eilish circa "When We All Fall Asleep." The circus-freak vibe, the squeaky sound effects, the brief silence at the end of the chorus that precedes the word "me," the eerie whispers and sirens in the outro — "The Diner" is gothic and theatrical, what O'Connell once described as "the Billie sound," but fuller, somehow. More amped. It sounds like "Bury a Friend" on ecstasy.

"Bittersuite" is all right, but it's not a standout.

"Bittersuite" is all right, but it
"Bittersuite" is the ninth track on "Hit Me Hard and Soft."      Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for ABA

"Bittersuite" has some interesting choices and it's definitely not a skip. But it also isn't particularly remarkable. The plinky mid-song synths remind me of the fan-favorite deep cut "Ilomilo," though overall, "Bittersuite" lacks the same charm.

I doubt I'll reach for this one in the future — except, of course, during full-album spins. The seamless transition into "Blue" is essential.

"Blue" is a compelling blend of nostalgia and experimentation.

"Blue" is a compelling blend of nostalgia and experimentation.
"Blue" is the 10th and final track on "Hit Me Hard and Soft."      Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for ABA

Much like "The Diner," "Blue" recalls the outré flourishes of Eilish's debut album but avoids sounding overly familiar or stale.

Throughout "Blue," Eilish and O'Connell build a strange and otherworldly soundscape that mirrors the malaise in her lyrics ("You were born reaching for your mother's hands / Victim of your father's plans to rule the world… But they could say the same about me").

It's an effective, hypnotic closer that leaves me with a dueling sense of wonder and unease — exactly what I want from a trip to Eilish's world.

Final Grade: 9/10

Final Grade: 9/10
"Hit Me Hard and Soft" includes 10 tracks.      William Drumm

In their Rolling Stone interview, Eilish and O'Connell referred to "Hit Me Hard and Soft" as an "album-ass album." After just one listen, it's easy to see why.

This is a compact, tenacious, deeply intentional tracklist. With just 10 songs, every second counts. Several songs are two-for-one deals that take risks and detours by transforming into new beasts. Like the album cover, some lead to dreamlike worlds and murky depths.

I particularly relish the album's reference to "Spirited Away," a movie about stumbling through a portal to an alternate dimension where there's familiarity and fear in equal measure. Chihiro is thrust into a great adventure at an extremely young age — much like Eilish when she shot to fame as a teenager. The only options are escape or immersion. Eilish chose the latter.

Eilish is still only 22, but she has established a clear vision as an artist. These songs recall her best works — the surreal shapes and sinister themes that course through "When We All Fall Asleep," the raw emotion in songs like "Happier Than Ever," "Halley's Comet," and "What Was I Made For?" — without sounding like she's retreating back into her comfort zone. The textures are plusher, the colors are brighter, and Eilish's lyrics reveal her burgeoning maturity.

It's rare to hear an artist's identity come through so strongly in her work. "Hit Me Hard and Soft" isn't just an album-ass album. It's a Billie Eilish-ass album.

Worth listening to:

"Skinny"

"Lunch"

"Chihiro"

"Birds of a Feather"

"The Greatest"

"L'Amour de Ma Vie"

"The Diner"

"Blue"

Background music:

"Wildflower"

"Bittersuite"

Press skip:

N/A

*Final album score based on songs per category (1 point for "Worth listening to," .5 for "Background music," 0 for "Press skip").

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