Hopeless Romantic

Michelle Branch

Verve Records, 2017

http://www.michellebranch.com/

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/05/2017

Fifteen years: that’s how long it’s been since I’ve written about Michelle Branch. The Spirit Room was one of the pleasant surprises of my 2002, a warm, appealing modern rock debut whose rather slick production by John Shanks couldn’t disguise what lay underneath—engaging, emotionally rich songs crafted by a precociously talented young singer-songwriter.

Branch was 18 when The Spirit Room was released in fall 2001, and like many who achieve success at a young age, she seemed to be knocked sideways by it. After collaborating with Santana on the hooky, Grammy-winning hit single “The Game Of Love,” Branch followed up with 2003’s Hotel Papers, a patchy collection that fell short of fulfilling the promise of The Spirit Room. From there the trail began to bend over hills and valleys that included guest appearances on teen-oriented TV shows, marriage to her bass player, motherhood, the country-pop collaboration The Wreckers, a pair of unsuccessful attempts at a new solo album (one was pieced out into an EP and singles, another was flatly rejected by Warner Brothers), divorce, getting dropped by Warner, getting signed by Verve, and finally Hopeless Romantic.

So: Branch has been through the young-and-famous wringer, and as an admirer of her debut album, I’ve been rooting for a comeback for almost as long as I’ve known her name. Hopeless Romantic arrives with solid credentials: it’s a collaboration with co-producer / multi-instrumentalist / new romantic partner Patrick Carney of the Black Keys, whose influence manifests mostly in some of the more retro synth tones.

That said, the fact that the first instrument I’m mentioning is synthesizers is your clue that trouble lies ahead. The Spirit Room was a guitar-driven pop-rock album; there were synths, to be sure, and fairly slick production, but the sound at its core was upbeat guitar-bass-drums rock and roll, a.k.a. my thing. Not so with Hopeless Romantic; this is brooding, synthesizer-heavy electro-pop cut loose from every musical element of The Spirit Room that appealed to this listener, other than Branch’s voice and words. (And even her voice is different—rather than projecting like a rock singer, Romantic finds Branch often dialing her vocals way back; the falsetto works well, but the breathy, flirty coo she manifests on several songs just doesn’t ring true; it feels like a pose.)

My first listen to Hopeless Romantic was so disappointing that I did something I almost never do before a review is done: I read a couple of other reviews. (“Am I crazy here??”) “Michelle Branch Is Finally the Artist She Always Wanted to Be” declared Anna Gaca in SPIN, and all I could think was “Really? She always wanted sound like all the other breathy-vocals-over-moody-synthesizers-popstar-wannabes?” Rachel Sonis of Consequences of Sound calls Branch’s new album “her most vulnerable and honest work to date.” Okay, fair enough—the lyrics are deeply personal and often revealing, songs about a bitter breakup and falling in love again that feel at times almost voyeuristically autobiographical.

But the music… ye gods. It’s almost uniformly cold, mechanical electro-pop, with layers of synthesizers looming over a rhythm section that’s essentially there just to provide a backbeat for Branch’s frequently multi-tracked vocals. (I really have no idea why the cover shot shows her holding a guitar… you can hear more bells on this album than guitars.)

Let’s start with the good. “Best You Ever,” “Hopeless Romantic,” and especially “Knock Yourself Out” are strong songs fueled by real emotion, even if the music makes me a little crazy. This album’s one positive on the production end is that all the bass and drums appear to be the genuine article and Carney retains his trademark big echoey, almost Motown-styled drum sound; it’s just that they’ve been buried under layer after layer of synths.

“Best You Ever” opens the album with a tart kiss-off that hits home, even if some of the femme fatale posturing feels over the top. By contrast, the yearning on display in “Hopeless Romantic” feels a hundred percent sincere; it’s just dressed up in so much electronic goop that the contrast is shocking—heartfelt lyrics and vocals paired with cool, artificial electronic music that’s the polar opposite of warm and authentic.

“Knock Yourself Out” is the best thing here, a billowy, urgent ballad that starts off acoustic and dials back the electronics much of the time, letting the song build and flow mostly around Branch’s voice. The lyric might be a bit on-the-nose, but the emotion Branch pours into it makes it work: “I keep talking / But no one listens / I keep hearing things that I can’t understand / I see beauty in resistance / I’m just trying to figure out who I am.” This is the story of the last 15 years of her life. “I hope all that I’ve learned will make sense when I get there,” she sings at the finish of this powerhouse number, and the listener can’t help but hope that for her, too. 

Unfortunately, for this reviewer at least, that’s where the highlights end. The rest of this 14-track, 53-minute excursion mostly varies from frustrating to painful. There’s the breathy seductive-ingenue speak-singing on “Fault Lines,” the thudding disco-lite of “Temporary Feeling” and the actively annoying electro-dance-pop of “Living A Lie,” which sounds like a leftover from the last Maroon 5 album. Again and again, the thought that came to mind was “Michelle: you’re better than this.”

Late-arriving anthem “Not A Love Song” and closer “City” really exemplify all that could have been, and went wrong, here. Both feature sharp, emotionally rich lyrics, the latter adding nice harmonies from Keith Jeffery of Atlas Genius, and both are trapped inside of electro-pop arrangements and production that actively grates.

In 2002 I caught Michelle Branch live on tour opening for Sheryl Crow. That made it doubly ironic reviewing this album directly after I reviewed Crow’s latest, which finds her revisiting the circa-2002 style that was such a good fit for her. Rather than following Crow’s lead and reclaiming her former musical identity, Branch has instead run just about as far from it as she could get.

As an observer of the scene, I'm frequently annoyed by fans who refuse to accept it when artists they admire change. Artists need to go where they need to go, and it's not up to us to do anything other than decide whether or not to follow. So if Michelle Branch feels good about where she is today musically, then I’m genuinely happy for her—it’s just not a direction that holds any appeal for me. Bon voyage.

Rating: C

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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