Take a moment to recall what your life was like in 2003. How different are things now, fourteen years later? How has all that time changed who you are as a person and the things that you do?
These are questions I’ve been turning over in my head with the release of Hopeless Romantic, Michelle Branch’s fourth album and her first since Hotel Paper in 2003, due to side-projects and a plethora of record company woes.
Especially given how much I know my life has shifted since 2003, I went into this album knowing not to expect to find the same Michelle Branch that I heard in her past work. In the time since her last album, she married Teddy Landau, had a daughter with him, and they got divorced. Now, she’s involved with Patrick Carney of The Black Keys, who co-wrote and co-produced Hopeless Romantic. On top of Carney’s direct work on the album, these shifts in her life have affected the music she’s delivering to us all these years later, and the result is a robust new direction for Branch that retains enough of the old to satisfy fans new and old.
The sizeable 14-track album primarily alternates between the tumultuous end of a relationship and the hopeful start of another, seamlessly blending post-breakup spite and confidence with regret, then bridging into the carefree bliss of new love. Filled with biting criticisms and poignant reflections, Branch’s lyrics are as emotional and relatable as ever. Sonically, Carney’s blues-rock influence can be heard, and Hopeless Romantic feels far less poppy than her previous endeavors; in the end, though, Branch blazes her own, individual path with a compelling blend of styles and honed vocals that complement her maturation as an artist.
Hopeless Romantic leads off with “Best You Ever,” a bass-heavy anthem of post-breakup confidence filled with eerie synths. “Living A Lie” kicks up the pace and ups the aggression as well as the confidence and flippancy toward an ex-love, and “Not A Love Song” carries the energy forward while simultaneously admitting some confliction, backed with lively guitar to complement Branch’s Taylor Swift-esque cries of, “Remember when you said ‘together forever?’ / Whatever.”
But Branch takes the post-breakup bitterness to its furthest and most effective point as she digs to her core in the album’s title track. A complex, haunting piece, “Hopeless Romantic” is accented by keyboard, oozing pain and regret as she mourns a relationship gone brutally sour.
Despite the baggage that Branch is dealing with, the album is by no means one-note in its bitterness; a particular degree of nuance comes in tracks like “Fault Line,” a regretful ballad dealing with the difficulty of an inevitable breakup as Branch mourns, “It’s too late to be the first to walk away / When you’re lovers on a fault line.” We also see more of the hopeless romantic in Branch among the light synths in “Heartbreak Now” as she bemoans, “I’m haunted by the way that I want you / ‘Cause you can’t help who you love.”
The other side of the album sees Branch begin to focus on the thrill of a new start. “Carry Me Home” has a dreamy, swooning atmosphere that makes it one of the album standouts as it compares falling in love to inebriation among light piano. “Last Night” presents do-or-die finality in its romantic passion, and “You’re Good” is a declaration of certainty in love in spite of others’ perceptions.
The album breaks from romance in “Knock Yourself Out,” where light guitar is the backdrop to Branch’s struggles to make sense of the world, as well as in “Shadow,” an atmospheric tune that sells its optimism through soaring choruses and harmonizing vocalizations. The latter leads the album into the pensive, slow melody of “City,” backed by vocals from Keith Jeffery of Atlas Genius and slowly fading the album out with its minute-and-a-half-long instrumental outro.
Though not an entirely flawless endeavor, every song on the album ultimately proves its worth. From the visceral pain of the title track to the confliction of songs like “Fault Line” and “Knock Yourself Out” and the bliss of “Carry Me Home,” Hopeless Romantic is an emotional journey as well as a musical one, steering through a plethora of styles. It may not be the same music we were seeing from her before the extended hiatus, but with this album, Michelle Branch has truly reminded us of what we’ve been missing out on for so long, and with any luck she won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.