Sunday, June 23, 2024

The Anxious Love Songs of Billie Eilish

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Earlier this year, the singer and songwriter Billie Eilish, who is twenty-two, became the youngest two-time Oscar winner in history, collecting the Best Original Song award for “What Was I Made For?,” a delicate existential ballad that she co-wrote for the film “Barbie.” (She also won in 2022, for “No Time to Die,” a moody and portentous Bond theme.) Incidentally, Eilish is also the youngest person ever to have a clean sweep of all four of the main Grammy categories (Best New Artist, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Album of the Year), which she achieved in 2020, for her début LP, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” At that year’s ceremony, moments before Album of the Year was announced, Eilish can be seen mouthing, “Please don’t be me”; onstage, standing alongside her brother Finneas O’Connell, who is also her co-writer and producer, she seemed bewildered, if not mortified. “We wrote an album about depression, and suicidal thoughts, and climate change,” O’Connell told the crowd. “We stand up here confused and grateful.” It’s both heartening and slightly mystifying that Eilish, who writes sombre, idiosyncratic, goth-tinged electro-pop about her loneliness and boredom, has become such a lodestone for industry accolades. “Man am I the greatest / God I hate it,” Eilish sings on “The Greatest,” a forlorn, walloping song from her compact but powerful new album, “Hit Me Hard and Soft,” which was just released.

Eilish is known for taking her time in a song, sometimes crawling through a melody as though it were a bowl of molasses, and she often chooses to sing in a whisper, letting a note hang in the air before it dissipates entirely. Her vocal style reminds me of an evanescing cloud of smoke after someone blows out a cluster of birthday candles—beautiful, fleeting, a little bit haunted. Yet, on “The Greatest,” Eilish belts and bellows. “I waited / And waited,” she wails, her voice getting bigger and bigger. It’s rare to find Eilish in bloodletting mode, but fury and loudness suit her, too. Lyrically, much of “Hit Me Hard and Soft” is about wanting a relationship but failing, in some fundamental and inescapable way, to sustain closeness with another person. It’s an interesting problem: desiring something, but also realizing you are incapable of having it. The twists and turns of Eilish’s emotional journey are reflected and amplified by O’Connell’s production; these songs are prone to sudden changes and reinventions, ups and downs. Faster, slower, close, far, here, gone. “L’Amour de Ma Vie,” a new song about a soured relationship—“You were so mediocre,” Eilish sings—shifts from a lovelorn, jazz-inflected torch song into a pulsing club banger, cold and threatening. In less assured hands, that transformation might be disorienting, but Eilish and O’Connell are masterly at finding the connective tissue between disparate feelings and sounds. Why can’t a love song be gentle and aggressive, grounded and spectral? Isn’t love?

From the start of her career, Eilish has never been particularly comfortable with celebrity, and at times she has appeared viscerally repelled by it; the anxiety and paranoia brought on by global fame are another theme here, and are perhaps directly responsible for Eilish’s romantic angst. On “Skinny,” the yearning ballad that opens the album, she reflects on coming of age under the scrutiny of strangers. “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,” Eilish sings, her voice feathery and resigned. (“The Internet is hungry for the meanest kind of funny / And somebody’s gotta feed it,” she points out.) “Skinny” is a gorgeous song, wounded and fragile, with a whiff of Lilith Fair folksiness. It ends with a mournful string figure by the Attacca Quartet, the only other musicians featured on the album besides Eilish, O’Connell, and Eilish’s tour drummer, Andrew Marshall.

Eilish writes often about control, an idea that manifests in images of closed doors and lyrics about feeling caged. (The cover art features a photograph of Eilish sinking into a deep-blue abyss, just below a white door.) “When I step off the stage I’m a bird in a cage / I’m a dog in a dog pound,” she sings, on “Skinny.” On “Chihiro,” she is imploring: “Open up the door / Can you open up the door?” On “Blue,” which closes the album, she returns to both images:

Don’t know what’s in store
Open up the door
The back of my mind
I’m still overseas
A bird in a cage

Claustrophobia, darkness, fear—these are all ideas that Eilish and O’Connell luxuriated in on “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” but here they feel deeper, broader, and more dramatic. Partway through “Blue,” Eilish starts chanting, her voice so flat and filtered that at first I thought it might be O’Connell. For Eilish, fame and depression are entangled, heavy predicaments to endure and, she hopes, survive:

And I could say the same ’bout you
Born blameless grew up famous too
Just a baby born blue now

Musically, “Hit Me Hard and Soft” lands somewhere between “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” and Eilish’s second album, “Happier Than Ever,” from 2021. In recent years, Eilish’s songwriting has felt more indebted to jazz-adjacent pop singers such as Peggy Lee and Amy Winehouse than to the spooky despondency of Nine Inch Nails. “Hit Me Hard and Soft” is mature and nuanced, and that feels appropriate—the spiritual distance between seventeen and twenty-two is vast—but I sometimes miss Eilish’s giddier and more puerile side. Many listeners first came to know Eilish through “Bad Guy,” the fifth single from “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” It’s a funny and inventive track, featuring a campy synthesizer riff and a dramatic tempo change. What made “Bad Guy” so intoxicating was the artful way it balanced youthful insouciance—that “Duh,” delivered at the end of each chorus, was so perfectly saturated with teen-age disdain it felt like getting hit in the face with a water balloon—and a kind of playful, empowered sensuality. In the song’s video, Eilish sports blue hair, and blood is smeared across her face; her eyes are vacant, unfeeling. But she also dances around like an enormous goof, wearing an oversized butter-yellow sweatsuit, and leads a gang of dudes down a suburban street from behind the wheel of a toy race car.

That particular combination—“Bad Guy” is equal parts serious and silly—reminds me of a lot of things, but especially of sex, which can be solemn, sometimes sacred, but also completely absurd. Eilish embraces her carnal appetites on “Lunch,” a new song about pure animal lust:

I could eat that girl for lunch
Yeah she dances on my tongue
Tastes like she might be the one

For all the hand-wringing about the lagging sex drive of younger Americans, Eilish has been outspoken about the ways in which that sort of physical communion can be healing. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, she endorsed the myriad benefits of masturbation—“People should be jerking it, man”—and of female sexual pleasure more generally. “I think it’s such a frowned-upon thing to talk about, and I think that should change,” she said. “You asked me what I do to decompress? That shit can really, really save you sometimes, just saying. Can’t recommend it more, to be real.” “Lunch” is a weird, pulsing track, vigorous and horny. It’s also my favorite song on the new album, in part because Eilish sounds incredibly free, which is to say, she sounds like herself. ♦

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