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Billie Eilish’s Anxious Love Songs

Earlier this year, singer-songwriter Billie Eilish, who is 22, became the youngest two-time Oscar winner in history, picking up the award for best original song for the delicate existential ballad «What Was I Made For?». co-screenplay for the film»Barbie.” (She also won in 2022 for “No Time to Die,” the moody and flamboyant Bond theme.) Incidentally, Eilish is also the youngest person ever to net in all four major Grammy categories (Best New Artist, Best New Artist, Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Album of the Year), which she achieved in 2020 for her debut LP «When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?» At this year’s ceremony, moments before the album of the year was announced, Eilish can be seen mouth: «Please don’t be me»; On stage, standing alongside her brother Finneas O’Connell, who is also her co-writer and producer, she looked bewildered, if not humiliated. «We wrote an album about depression, suicidal thoughts and climate change,» O’Connell told the crowd. “We get confused and grateful here. It’s both encouraging and slightly mystifying that Eilish, who writes dark, quirky, gothic-tinged electro-pop about her loneliness and boredom, has become such a magnet for industry awards. «Man I’m the greatest / God, I hate it,» sings Eilish on «The Greatest,» a desolate, rousing song from her compact but powerful new album, «Hit Me Hard and Soft,» just released.

Eilish is known for taking her time in a song, sometimes crawling through a melody like it’s a bowl of molasses, and often opting to sing in a whisper, letting the note hang in the air before completely dissolving. Her vocal style reminds me of a disappearing cloud of smoke after someone blows out a cluster of birthday candles – beautiful, fleeting, a little haunting. Still, on «The Greatest» Eilish belts and bellows. «I waited / and waited,» she wails, her voice getting louder and louder. It’s rare to find Eilish in carnage mode, but the fury and volume suit her too. Lyrically, much of «Hit Me Hard and Soft» is about wanting a relationship but failing, in some fundamental and inevitable way, to maintain closeness with another person. It’s an interesting problem: wanting something but also realizing you can’t have it. The twists and turns of Eilisha’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, near, far, here, away. «L’Amour de Ma Vie,» a new song about a relationship gone sour — «You were so average,» sings Eilish — moves from a loving, jazz-infused torch song to a throbbing club, cold and menacing. In less confident hands, this transformation could be disorienting, but Eilish and O’Connell are masters at finding the connective tissue between disparate feelings and sounds. Why can’t a love song be soft and aggressive, grounded and spectral? Isn’t it love?

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From the beginning of her career, Eilish was never particularly fond of celebrity, and at times seemed to repulse her; the anxiety and paranoia caused by global fame is another theme here and is perhaps directly responsible for Eilisha’s romantic anxiety. «Skinny,» the wistful ballad that opens the album, reflects on growing up under the scrutiny of strangers. «People say I look happy / Just because I’ve lost weight / But the old me is still me and maybe the real me / And I think she’s pretty,» sings Eilish, her voice soft and resigned. (“The internet is hungry for the meanest kind of fun / And somebody has to feed it,” he points out.) “Skinny” is a beautiful song, wounded and fragile, with a touch of Lilith Fair folk. It ends with a mournful string figure by the Attacca Quartet, the only other musicians on the album besides Eilish, O’Connell and Eilish’s touring drummer, Andrew Marshall.

Eilish often writes about control, an idea that manifests itself in images of closed doors and lyrics about feeling caged. (The cover features a photo of Eilish diving into a dark 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 doghouse,» she sings on «Skinny.» On «Chihiro,» she pleads, «Open the door / Can you open the door?» On «Blue,» which closes the album, he returns to both images:

I don’t know what’s in store
Open 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 relished in When We All Go To Sleep, but here they feel deeper, wider and more dramatic. In «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 entwined, a difficult predicament she must endure and hope to survive:

And I could say the same about you
Born blameless also grew up famous
A blue baby has just been born

Musically, «Hit Me Hard and Soft» falls somewhere between «When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?» and Eilish’s sophomore album, 2021’s «Happier Than Ever.» In recent years, Eilish’s songwriting has been more beholden to jazz pop singers , such as Peggy Lee and Amy Winehouse, than the haunting gloom of Nine Inch Nails. «Hit Me Hard and Soft» is mature and mellow, and I find that appropriate – the spiritual distance between seventeen and twenty-two is huge – but sometimes I miss Eilish’s more giddy, childish side. Many listeners first became familiar with Eilish through «Bad Guy,» the fifth single from «When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?» It’s a witty and inventive track that features a synth riff and dramatic tempo change. What made «Bad Guy» so intoxicating was the subtle way it balanced youthful carefreeness—that «Duh» delivered at the end of each chorus was so perfectly imbued with teenage disdain that I felt like I’d been slapped in the face with water. balloon — and a kind of playful, heightened sensuality. In the video for the song, Eilish has blue hair and blood splattered across her face; her eyes are empty, emotionless. But he also dances like a huge nerd in an oversized buttery yellow sweatshirt and leads a bunch of dudes down a suburban street from behind the wheel of a race car.

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This particular combination—»Bad Guy» is equal parts serious and silly—reminds me of a lot of things, but most of all sex, which can be serious, sometimes sacred, but also completely absurd. Eilish embraces her carnal appetites in ‘Lunch’, a new song about pure animal lust:

I could eat that girl for lunch
Yeah, it dances on my tongue
Tastes like it could be her

For all manual wringing o the lagging sex drive of younger AmericansEilish has been open about the ways in which this kind of physical communion can be healing. IN recent interview with The rolling stone, promoted the myriad benefits of masturbation—»People should jerk off with it, man»—and female sexual pleasure more generally. «I think it’s kind of a frowned upon thing to talk about and I think that should change,» she said. “You asked me what to do to decompress? This shit can really save you sometimes, just saying. I can’t recommend it more to be honest.” «Lunch» is a strange, vibrant track, energetic and horny. It’s also my favorite song on the new album, partly because Eilish sounds incredibly free, which means it sounds like her. ♦

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