Genre: Pop/Rock, Indie Pop
Label: Verve Records
Media Types: Digital, Streaming, CD, Vinyl
Release Date: April 7th, 2017
Michelle Branch hasn’t released a solo album since 2003. She’s been out of the limelight for a long time, but she has kept busy. She spent the remainder of the 2000s with her country group The Wreckers and released a couple of EPs at the beginning of the 2010s, but most of this decade has been spent fighting with her previous label to release the now scrapped album, West Coast Time. Between her last solo album and this one, she was married to her bass player Teddy Landau for 11 years before divorcing him, and started dating Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, who also produced and co-wrote the album. So a lot has transpired for Branch both professionally and personally since 2003. This has a huge effect on the album, and Hopeless Romantic evolves Branch’s sound from her early 2000s heyday in both positive and negative ways.
Like Branch’s previous work, Hopeless Romantic is a pop/rock album, but as that kind of music is perceived in 2017, which means that it has much more of an Indie Pop sound with a retro feel to it. Specifically, there’s a lo-fi, unpolished production style to the music that’s a stark contrast to her previous work. Carney’s fingerprints can be heard all over this album, and it helps cement that less commercial sound. Branch herself takes to this more reserved and minimalistic style quite well, as she mostly coos the lyrics rather than belt them out such as in her previous hit songs “Everywhere” and “Are You Happy Now.” In many ways, this works in the album’s favor. Songs like “Hopeless Romantic”, “Fault Line” and the closing “City” benefit greatly from this as Branch’s calm and pleasant vocals navigate the dirty wilderness that is the music. Arguably the strongest songs on the album are “Best You Ever” and “Temporary Feeling”, which not only excel for the aforementioned reasons, but the delivery in the vocals and compositions are more focused, transforming these songs into sultry and provocative highlights. It also accentuates the biggest strength of the album: its lyrics.
Hopeless Romantic is one half a break-up album, and one half all about new love. The lyrics speak of becoming withdrawn, timid, and profoundly lonely in the break-up songs, while the new love songs describe hesitation, reckless abandon, and motherly reflection. It’s impressive to see what was done with so little as the lyrics are often simple yet melodically adept. Branch is no abstract poet, but the lyrics succeed in being focused on its subject matter while also being musically cohesive. Especially with Branch’s singing style, the words just ebb and flow effortlessly with each other. Lyrics such as “I can’t sign sincerely yours, I never was, I’ve never been”, and “The things we say when we’re both right, we ricochet, lovers on a fault line” are nothing profound but they flow extremely well while perfectly getting their message across. When she sings about loneliness, it’s beautiful and heartfelt. When she sings about her concerns, they feel warranted while also being melodious.
It’s a shame that the music doesn’t keep up with the lyrics. The unpolished feel of the songs is never really countered with raw passion or conviction in the performances. This ultimately gives the album a blasé sound as nothing in the instrumentation is pronounced or memorable. Furthermore, some of the songs feel underwritten. Tracks like “You’re Good” and “Last Night” leave your mind as soon as they’re over. In fact, there are a few songs that could have been cut and it would have made the album better, especially considering the 14 song track list and 52:21 run time. However, the worst issue with this album is the energy. For what should have been a tumultuous record describing both the nasty end and the joyous begin of loving relationships, Hopeless Romantic is far too reserved for its own good. There’s a distinct lack of energy in the music despite its subject matter. No id-driven revenge fantasies, no wrought-laden bouts of depression, or even exuberant cries of freedom are ever expressed here or expressed fervently. Even good tracks like “Heartbreak Now”, “Knock Yourself Out”, and “Carry Me Home” suffer from this, but it’s especially apparent in the track “Not a Love Song.” For what is clearly meant to be a big middle finger to her previous lover, the song comes across as limp, and unenthusiastic. It’s a problem that never gets fixed and the whole album could’ve been improved if the performances would’ve been more vibrant.
Michelle Branch’s latest is an interesting listen. It’s a strong effort especially for an artist who hasn’t had a full solo album release in 14 years. However, due to a few underwritten songs, underwhelming music, and a lack of energy in the performances, Hopeless Romantic is ultimately underwhelming despite its strong lyrics and vocals. The album could’ve benefited from some more time fleshing out and smoothing out some of the rough edges in the songs as well as a more enthusiastic performance. The album still has some strong tracks that I can recommend even if I can’t say the same for the album as a whole. If anything, this will hopefully shake the cobwebs off and make for a stronger album the next time around. Get the good songs before moving on.