When news broke in January that Michelle Branch would return with her first album since George W. Bush’s reelection, a generation of millennials who jammed out to “Everywhere” and “Are You Happy Now?” experienced a major nostalgia trip. Unlike many other early ‘00s teen pop stars, Branch faded from mainstream attention (her last solo album Hotel Paper was released in 2003) before losing the charm fans had latched onto. Would her comeback pick up from the strong spot on which her career paused?
With Patrick Carney as musical (and romantic) partner, the answer is mostly yes. As drummer for The Black Keys, Carney is an expert at balancing broad appeal with innovation that interests the more independent-minded, two key ingredients for anyone’s resolute return. Sprinkled with gorgeous, transparent and colorful synths, Hopeless Romantic casts Branch as a newly matured lover and songwriter and is indeed likely to succeed at satisfying diehards and welcoming in new devotees.
The 14 songs are removed enough from the pop rock of “Goodbye to You” and “Breathe” that one would be forgiven for thinking someone other than Branch is behind it all. “Knock Yourself Out” is a bleeding-heart, slow-burning fusion of country and dream pop; “You’re Good” sounds like a psychedelic take on a Black Keys deep cut. The title track is a dripping, Purple Rain-esque slab of sensual R&B and one of the album’s immediate best. Throughout, Branch’s voice scales back the melodrama while remaining robust, saving the album from triteness.
Hopeless Romantic arrives with no shortage of breakup songs (Branch divorced Teddy Landau, her husband of 10 years, prior to the writing/recording of this album) and requires this sort of diversity to avoid monotony. Slotting the starry-eyed love song “Carry Me Home” directly next to the vindictive send-off “Not a Love Song” builds a startling non-linear narrative that keeps Branch’s story interesting. The album’s intro track, “Best You Ever,” is among its boldest kiss-offs, and it comes not long before “Fault Line” explores the transition between her former relationship and her new love.
Michelle Branch is no poet, but Hopeless Romantic tells her story with enough variance to stay engaging. Although loneliness, crawling or being on one’s knees for love appear a bit too frequently, who’s expected to be flawless after this serious of a breakup? Kudos to Branch for using music to emerge nearly unscathed.