Review Summary: About time

For all her performative disaffection, leaden self-consciousness, and insistence on slinging her only best hooks over lyrics that curdle the moment they break the surface of your memory, I've really come around on Billie Eilish over the last few years…

…and it's hard to overstate how much reevaluation this has taken.

When I first encountered her off the back of her stratospheric rise in 2019, she made for an exceptionally easy target, and it only goes so far to blame this on her admittedly obnoxious debut When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. Taking in her lurid fashion choices, her glum outlook, her ambivalence to intimacy, romance and intoxication, and the palpable sourness with which she kept her tongue so firmly in her cheek, it was as easy to dismiss her as a cipher for Gen-Z's coming-of-age moment as it was to pick on her distinct self and style — and both perspectives were frequently laced with the weapons-grade misogyny reserved for seemingly mature teenage girls thrust into the public eye (whether this came as infantilisation from those who abhorred her or gross sexualisation from those who claimed to like her). She immediately posed a negative converse to the wholesome optimism (Carly Rae Jepsen) and electric hedonism (Charli XCX) that defined that era's critical consensus, leaving her mark as such: one can pinpoint When We All Fall Asleep… as one of two key records that cemented anemic despondency as a leading force in pop (the other being Lana del Rey's Norman Fucking Rockwell). The fallout off this has taken a swathe of mostly dismal forms, whether it was handing Phoebe Bridgers the megaphone to ruin pandemic-era Twitter for everyone, plucking Cigarettes After Sex off hospice playlists and somehow plonked them into everyday discourse, convincing multiple audiences of sound mind to sit through the entirety of Ethel Cain's debut album, or fuelling Taylor Swift's sordid infatuation with alt-pop tedium — hardly the most inspiring of legacies, however one puts the blame on Eilish herself. Moreover, efforts to view her as an autonomous creator were at the time quite rightly clouded by suspicions that, of all the young songwriters in the world who might have been anointed as the mouthpiece of their generation, it stank that the one who got there first came as a bundle with Hollywood parents and older brother who could earn a comfortable living mentoring producers twice his age in DAW hacks.

Thankfully, we're well past the point where it serves to write Eilish off as a nepotistic plant, or to mistake her glum demeanour for charmlessness. Her work in the past years has shown obvious artistic growth: 2021's Happier Than Ever was an odd case that would have been received as a sophomore slump from almost anyone else – just you try to name a more introverted attention-starve from a major artist! – yet was simultaneously encouraging for the step it saw Eilish take towards a more mature, earnest standpoint. Out went the obnoxious nudge-nudge wink-wink prerequisites demanded by, say, "bad guy" or "wish you were gay", and in their place came a newly incisive angle on pop tropes the mainstream was still finding the language to deconstruct ("Male Fantasy", "Your Power") alongside an intriguing sense that Eilish was wilfully innovating her public persona as a shield around her sacrosanct personal space ("My Future", "Not My Responsibility", "NDA"). Happier Than Ever was a thoroughly purgatorial listen, but I found myself admiring how honestly Eilish approached self-fashioning, how clearly she drew her lines around selective confessionalism and selective distance — what a refreshing contrast to so many of the blunders the generation above her continues to make! How different to the types whose public image is as toxically codependent on personal trivia as a talent show panellist on their botox saloon (Taylor Swift), who approach the stylistic challenges inherent in autobiographical writing as a pretext for drunken pastiche (Lana del Rey), or who missed the memo on the value of personality altogether (Dua Lipa)!

Suddenly the pop landscape didn't seem so unflattering to Billie Eilish. I've warmed to her further having followed the use she's since made of her platform, whether it's calling out the likes of Ariana Grande and [not citing her a third time sorry] in all but name for haemorrhaging the environmentally wasteful vinyl industry with useless collector's editions and alternative covers, all while pressing her own LPs on recycled vinyl, leading the vanguard on eco-friendly touring, or giving Hayley Williams a helping hand to reclaim Paramore's signature song "Misery Business" as a live staple. As generational icons go, it turns out we could have had far worse.

What a shame that for every half-decent tune she put her name to, the following nine were such an airless chore…

Well.

Hit Me Hard and Soft finally flips the script here, marking Eilish's first tracklist that (mostly) justifies her credentials as a pop luminary in terms that start and end with her music. Its ten songs run the gamut from sophisticated earworms ("Birds of a Feather") to morose ruminations ("Skinny") to cathartic denouements akin to Happier Than Ever's show-stealing title-track ("L'Amour de ma vie"), but – crucially! – almost all are equipped with enough ear-catching flair and tangible momentum that we are all paying attention whenever Eilish leans back into the middle-distance glaze-outs she has made her trademark.

Take the album highlight "Chihiro", a superbly well-constructed track that hangs its entire chorus on the contours of Eilish's melismatic delivery and imbues each twinkling accent with a starry flourish worthy of its Studio Ghibli inspirations. When it hits its (dynamic) peak in a spiral of arpeggios courtesy of producer-brother Finneas, the most engaging facet is not the pure ear candy of his synthesiser arrangement, but the fragile intensity with which Billie's shouts attempt to break through umpteen layers of reverb from well underneath him in the mix. We're treated to a sugar rush on one hand, and the heart-in-mouth aesthetic of a protagonist trapped under ice on the other — it's not a 'banger' by anyone's estimation (though its central bassline could certainly sustain one), but its unpredictable structure and careful subversion of tension-and-release makes for one of the most rewarding and creative events of the 2024 mainstream.

In a similar way, Eilish sidesteps her way to surprise highlights throughout the album, be they the pumping synthpop coda that elevates "L'Amour de ma vie" from narrative-over-notes diarism to an obvious emotional centrepiece, or the abrupt pivots she makes midway "Bittersuite" and "Blue". The former lands as a mercurial deep cut by trading its churning synths for ponderous dub, while the latter draws on its bipartite structure to wrap the album up with a rousing curtain call and a chilling epilogue in one fell swoop, each more effective for the presence of the other. Not only are Eilish and her brother's songwriting and production instincts markedly distinct from anyone within arm's reach of their commercial pull, but this time around they have the strength of material to show for it — Hit Me Hard and Soft has all the pulse and conviction her earlier efforts fell so short of.

There's a little collateral to be flagged here, most significantly in Eilish's hookmaking strategy. While she shows a keen ear for an unlikely hook or a soaring vocalise, far too many of these songs rest far too much of their weight on the proverbial Rhyme Scheme AAAA: Eilish constructs many of her verses around grabbing the listener's attention with one strong syllable and hammering it in so insistently that they are unable to look away. This occurs too frequently for any one song to catch full flack, but the entirety of "Lunch" – verse/chorus/bridge/you name it – makes for as obvious an example as any, while the chorus of "The Greatest" is perhaps the most regrettable instance. See:

Man, am I the greatest
My congratulations
All my love and patience
All my admiration
All the times I waited
For you to want me naked
Made it all look painless
Man, am I the greatest

The strain of this assonance speaks for itself.

Used sparingly, I can see the attraction: it's a claustrophobic approach to verse that often complements the often oppressive view of intimacy in her subject matter, or pairs well with the shrinkwrap of Finneas' production, or offers a firm anchor to an otherwise diffuse verse — fine, on a case-by-case basis anyhow (I'm fond of how it sits over the syncopation in "Birds of a Feather"'s title refrain). However, this approach finds itself overused to the point that it clouds the album's otherwise malleable stylistic palette with an unnecessary sense of homogeneity: it's a grating detraction on otherwise catchy songs and I could see it being a dealbreaker for many.

Take overzealous rhymes out of the equation, and there are just two tracks here that warrant an eyebrow-raise: "Lunch" sets its sights so firmly on coughing up the album's most streamlined pop track that it finds itself short of meat on its bones, while the plastic reggae and chromatic squeak on "The Diner" recall the most off-putting tendencies of When We All Fall Asleep…'s post-genre slurry. Both songs hold their ground on subject matter – "The Diner" as an unsettling stalker narrative and "Lunch" as the inevitable gay girl soundtrack of the summer – but neither adds to this tracklist beyond the box it ticks for stylistic diversity.

…and that's about all the scope of it for detraction. That's it. Both are major points for me, but they are also such singular criticisms that they underscore how difficult it is to lay a finger on this album, devil's advocate or otherwise. Hit Me Hard and Soft is a bold, well-crafted pop record rich with the personality of its creator, and like most such albums, it holds up just well if you take it as a face-value set of engaging, gratifying songs as if you mine it for complexity (aesthetic or lyrical) — and if it's a shock to hear such a thing from an artist many still consider insufferable, then, well, it pays to be proved wrong once in a while. This is as good a place as any to leave that baggage at the door.



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3.4
great
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Shamus248 CONTRIBUTOR (4)
"The old me is still me."...



Comments:Add a Comment 
Slex
May 19th 2024


16690 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Why did this review need like 3 full paragraphs of slagging her and other artists before saying anything lmao

JohnnyoftheWell
Staff Reviewer
May 19th 2024


60955 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

a) big thanks to Jesper and granite for your eyes and thoughts on this, really appreciated the input you had on its substance (and the usual prose snags ofc)

b) if you'd told me in 2021 that I'd comfortably prefer the next Billie Eilish record over two of my favourite acts of that year (Arab Strap, Lightning Bug), I'd have eaten an entire wardrobe of hats

c) good album

d) https://www.tmz.com/2024/05/17/taylor-swift-releases-new-digital-version-tortured-poets-billie-eilish-album/ gawd she is washed



"Why did this review need"

would have thought the opening and closing paragraphs made this suitably clear. beyond the music, I really appreciated this album as a chance to openly reckon with how much the criticism levelled at B.E. throughout her career was and wasn't warranted, and I've been around this site long enough to know that I'm far from the only one who had something to gain in this

Gyromania
May 19th 2024


37203 Comments


Never been a huge fan but Male Fantasy is an incredible song and prob the best thing she’s ever done.

greatrevealer
May 19th 2024


8 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

great record

neekafat
Staff Reviewer
May 19th 2024


26337 Comments

Album Rating: 4.4

Proud of u Johnny

Cormano
May 19th 2024


4178 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

"Why did this review need"



I feel like this is mostly the case for pop records made by big names but yeah what Johnny said

Cormano
May 19th 2024


4178 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

good morning sirs

bighubbabuddha
May 19th 2024


753 Comments


This review is so wound up in strained, overly self-aware garbage it forgot to actually review the damned album. Oh wait it's just Johnny smelling his own farts again.

KillJester
May 19th 2024


170 Comments


I thought happier was a snooze fest. this is so much better.

artificialbox
May 19th 2024


1934 Comments


Good review Johnny. I need to give this some attention at some point.

Mort.
May 19th 2024


25669 Comments


'This review is so wound up in strained, overly self-aware garbage it forgot to actually review the damned album'

'Its ten songs run the gamut from sophisticated earworms ("Birds of a Feather") to morose ruminations ("Skinny") to cathartic denouements akin to Happier Than Ever's show-stealing title-track ("L'Amour de ma vie"), but – crucially! – almost all are equipped with enough ear-catching flair and tangible momentum that we are all paying attention whenever Eilish leans back into the middle-distance glaze-outs she has made her trademark'

'Take the album highlight "Chihiro", a superbly well-constructed track that hangs its entire chorus on the contours of Eilish's melismatic delivery and imbues each twinkling accent with a starry flourish worthy of its Studio Ghibli inspirations. When it hits its (dynamic) peak in a spiral of arpeggios courtesy of producer-brother Finneas, the most engaging facet is not the pure ear candy of his synthesiser arrangement, but the fragile intensity with which Billie's shouts attempt to break through umpteen layers of reverb from well underneath him in the mix. We're treated to a sugar rush on one hand, and the heart-in-mouth aesthetic of a protagonist trapped under ice on the other — it's not a 'banger' by anyone's estimation (though its central bassline could certainly sustain one), but its unpredictable structure and careful subversion of tension-and-release makes for one of the most rewarding and creative events of the 2024 mainstream.'


took me like 30 seconds. yes this review starts off with a lot of context. but it does then go into, you know, reviewing the album directly




DoofDoof
May 19th 2024


15326 Comments

Album Rating: 1.5

On Sputnik context is always seen as the enemy!

Wildcardbitchesss
May 19th 2024


12439 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

doof did you hate her previous two? just asking because I haven’t jammed this yet but a johnny 3.5 means it’s probably a wildcard 4-4.5

Shamus248
Contributing Reviewer
May 19th 2024


907 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

This review is so wound up in strained, overly self-aware garbage it forgot to actually review the damned album. Oh wait it's just Johnny smelling his own farts again. [2]



JohnnyoftheWell
Staff Reviewer
May 19th 2024


60955 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

ngl the bulk of this was the most natural experience i've had reviewing anything since i tried to veto your contrib application. dunno if my billie take will age quite as well



" a johnny 3.5 means it’s probably a wildcard 4-4.5"

if you fw'd with Happier Than Ever, you can defs going to this one with high hopes

DadKungFu
Staff Reviewer
May 19th 2024


5025 Comments


This is probably the best analysis of Eilish and her place in pop culture online right now, granted I have looked for analyses of Eilish and her place in pop culture once for every time her albums are reviewed on this site; anyway, bizarre that there are haters for this review

Ryus
May 19th 2024


37343 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

"bizarre that there are haters for this review"



people just want cookie cutter boring ass reviews over and over i guess

Hawks
May 19th 2024


89540 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Listened to the first track and it is better than anything on the debut lmao. Will jam this in full later today/tonight.

Drifter
May 19th 2024


20885 Comments


shamus drop a review for this so we can compare your writing skills

nol
May 19th 2024


12280 Comments


I’ll give this a shot



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