Has it really been 14 years? It seemed like only a matter of time before Michelle Branch cemented herself as a household name on the back of 2003’s Hotel Paper, her third album in four years. While that is still the case for anyone lucky enough to grow up during her explosive debut years at the turn of the millennium, the lengthy, intermittent hiatus period that followed has led to the newer generation of music fan mostly wondering who Branch actually is.
The hiatus however, has done Branch no harm whatsoever.
She still holds enough star power to be able to stroll into any studio with a handful of songs and record an album. Back in 2011 this was actually the case, with the album even having a name, West Coast Time and a release date of September of that year. However the record was pushed back for a 2013 release until seemingly being shelved altogether.
For many an artist, especially one juggling motherhood, conflict with her then label Reprise Records and later on the divorce from her long time partner Teddy Landau, nobody would have blamed Branch if she bowed out from the music industry altogether. However, a true musician never truly stays beaten for long and in 2015 she announced she’d signed a deal with Verve Records and began co-writing new material with Black Keys’ drummer Patrick Carney whom she had started dating that same year. The results of which have manifested themselves into Hopeless Romantic, a fourteen track, laid-back indie rock affair that truly shows Branch in an entirely different light.
Opener “Best You Ever” is remarkably slick in its design and would not sound out of place on Fleetwood Mac’s Tango In The Night. Branch’s vocals are effortless at times and demonstrates an impressive ability to create a chorus hook without forcing it.
Branch has never been short of chorus prowess, after all her 2001 hit “All You Wanted” is in my opinion one of the greatest choruses of the 21st century.
Here though, it’s catchy in entirely different ways and grabs you at more than just face value.
“You’re Good” is carried on by its bass groove. It’s a different proposition from the opening track in that its slower and more soulful but sacrifices none of its sleekness. On a similar vein is “Fault Line,” a slow-paced lament at Branch’s previous relationship with Landau.
As well as co-writing the tracks on Hopeless Romantic with Branch, Carney also helped produce the record. It’s very apparent that much of the blues rock sound that his band Black Keys have demonstrated throughout the years have seeped into the production of Hopeless Romantic too. Although Branch has stoically played guitar on her tracks throughout her career, her early tracks were backed by generic, over-produced studio beats.
The very fact that a guitar playing pop star such as Branch was once able to stand toe to toe with the cream of the pop elite in her heyday speaks volumes for her ability.
There was always that lingering doubt that Branch never fully had control of her own musical career. It’s never easy being a young woman trying to carve out a career in music, especially since the pop scene expects you to look a certain way and emphasises style over substance.
Which is all the more reason to applaud Hopeless Romantic and the freedom it expresses.
On tracks such as “Heartbreak Now” and lead single “Hopeless Romantic” go hand in hand in their lost in love narrative. This is far more than just Taylor Swift reciting all the men that have scorned her though, as Branch’s approach is more mature, structured and honest.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is “Living A Lie.” The fast paced drumming is matched every step of the way by Branch’s tongue in cheek recital of moving on from a rough situation, something she should be well accustomed to by now. Likewise, “Bad Side” is as close to pop rock mastery as you could possibly get. The guitars are loud and vibrant and there are hooks to be found in every nook.
“Knock Yourself Out” is a throwback to Branch’s finest early work. The acoustic underbelly and pop rock chorus very much reminiscent of her 2001 hit “Goodbye To You.” Closer “City” is the longest track on Hopeless Romantic and really does show how far Branch’s songwriting has come since her early material. It’s a telling of Branch discovering herself on her journeys back and forth between America and the UK. In many ways it closes the record perfectly.
Branch doesn’t really put a foot wrong throughout Hopeless Romantic.
While many artists would take tentative steps towards returning to the limelight, Branch truly embraces her own musical freedom and recounts the last decade or so of her life in the most honest way. With Carney in tow, the pair have shown a measure of understanding in their songwriting approach and each track has been produced to emphasise Branch’s own musical talent.
Despite Hopeless Romantic being abstractedly about Branch’s own dealings with love and heartbreak, the overall moral of the fact that even after such a lengthy break and the turbulent dealings with her previous label, Branch has still managed to release such an accomplished full-length is nothing short of a victory. 14 years is a long time in music, but some things are worth the wait.
Pick up the album now on iTunes.