Review: Michelle Branch Is Reborn On Long-Awaited Comeback ‘Hopeless Romantic’
At the beginning of the century, you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing a Michelle Branch song blasting through the speakers. Songs like “Everywhere,” “All You Wanted,” and a Santana collaboration called “Game Of Love” were pop rock staples that appeared, well, everywhere, from MTV to popular romantic comedies. But Michelle left that all behind after releasing Hotel Paper, instead turning to country music. She formed The Wreckers with Jessica Harp and the duo released one album. Michelle then tried to release a solo country album, but it eventually came out as a 6-song EP. In 2011, she had prepared West Coast Time and released its lead single, “Loud Music,” but the album was shelved. Now, after parting ways with her label and her husband, Michelle is finally back with Hopeless Romantic, her first album in 14 years.
Many may call this a return to form, but Hopeless Romantic isn’t the kind of pop rock album that Michelle was originally known for. She’s still a singer-songwriter with a guitar in her hands, but this time the music is a little less commercial. The new music is more indie rock than pop rock. The acoustic guitar that was instrumental to most of her past hits only appears on a handful of songs here. Instead, Hopeless Romantic is more electric, raw, and retro with its clear 1980s influence.
Hopeless Romantic is largely breakup album, but it’s also about finding love again. Michelle’s songs dissect the different feelings that come up when a relationship is falling apart and when a new one is starting in the face of the aftermath. Michelle writes her songs so candidly, so vividly, that you feel as if you’re going through the relationship ups and downs with her. It’s as if she’s singing words you wrote, even if you’re not actually going through these things in real life. Michelle possesses a rare talent for making the listener feel exactly what she feels. The music and lyrics together make her emotions deceptively real.
The album isn’t all sadness and heartbreak. There’s a delicate optimism to Michelle’s songs, and the silver lining makes room for the new love that comes next. It’s like seeing warm sunlight filtering through the window, even as it illuminates dust floating in the air. Michelle and Teddy Landau separated after a 10 year marriage and a daughter; the divorce finalized in 2015. Around this time, Michelle also left her Reprise Records. But the lows give way to highs, and eventually Michelle found love in Patrick Carney of The Black Keys. He co-wrote the album with her and supported her in her new label, Verve Records.
Michelle uses her upper register more on Hopeless Romantic than she did on her earlier albums. Instead of youthful power and angst, it’s emotional, vulnerable, hopeful, and resolute. Hopeless Romantic still sounds like Michelle Branch, but a grown-up version who’s wiser and more mature. She’s still unsure and stumbling through mistakes – do adults ever really feel grown up? Yet in spite of any uncertainty she feels, Michelle’s songs communicate more grace and stability in who she is. It’s where you’d hope she’d be 14 years later, the music still her, just with an updated sound and a fresh perspective.
Hopeless Romantic is a rebirth for Michelle Branch in many ways. It’s the kind of album that fans from the early 2000s will be able to get into, but it’s also music that can attract an entirely new audience. It’s a grand comeback album, and an album that promises more to come. Welcome back, Michelle.
Track by Track
“Best You Ever” – Hopeless Romantic opens with a breakup note: “Dearest lover, read this letter.” And while it sets the stage for a relationship-oriented record, it also reminds listeners who Michelle is. “I want you to remember me” is meant to be a kiss-off, yet it also serves as a “remember me?” to reintroduce fans to her music. “Best You Ever” is a cheeky, fizzy song, with a tough girl chorus that shows she’s confident now that she’s moving forward.
“You’re Good” – Track two is a grooving, percussive song about finding love again. Michelle sings, “Like a song, I know you by heart.” High-pitched synths in the background help “You’re Good” sound a bit more pop than most of the album, while bass anchors it. It’s a fun song about the romance side of Hopeless Romantic.
“Fault Line” – The final song we heard before release day, “Fault Line” is among the best on the album. The song sounds light and atmospheric, yet nostalgic and regretful. Michelle sings in her upper register beautifully. But despite the pretty sound, the song is a sad look at fading love. She paints the picture clearly: “It’s too late to be the first to walk away when your love is on a fault line.” The song is as tragic as it is sweet.
“Heartbreak Now” – The album takes us further into Michelle’s divorce on track #4. At first, “Heartbreak Now” sounds like a love song, with Michelle describing an obsession and a daydream. But the chorus brings her admission of being “lonely all over again.” Of all the songs on Hopeless Romantic, “Heartbreak Now” sounds the most hurt by the divorce.
“Hopeless Romantic” – The first song we heard, and the title track, is one of the highlights on Hopeless Romantic. It’s atmospheric, but in a way that is dark and haunting. “Hopeless Romantic” is slower, almost murky as Michelle’s voice vulnerably flickers and wavers. Strings and sliding vocals lend the song a more sensual, eerie vibe. “Hopeless Romantic” presents the scary, dark side of love in a way that feels magical.
“Living A Lie” – By now, it’s time for a little fun. “Living A Lie” is an upbeat, indie pop song with a retro vibe. Michelle taunts with lines like “You’re such a simple boy” and “You’re just a big mistake, I want to tell it to your face.” Cheery handclaps lead the chorus, while the bridge brings some grit to the song. Through sass and cheeky lyrics, Michelle delivers a carefree breakup song that’s a joy to listen to.
“Knock Yourself Out” – Out of the whole record, “Knock Yourself Out” sounds the most like the Michelle Branch fans used to know. It starts with acoustic guitar, presenting a vulnerable mid-tempo ballad about figuring out who you are. Even as you get older, there’s still so much that’s new that you don’t know how to deal with. Michelle describes feeling lost in life, even after marriage, a kid, and early career success. “Knock Yourself Out” is like a grown-up version of Michelle’s earliest ballads. It’s among the best songs on Hopeless Romantic.
“Temporary Feeling” – The album returns to that bouncy, retro sass on “Temporary Feeling.” But this time, instead of a wave goodbye, Michelle’s welcoming in a new paramour. Sliding, buzzing music matches lyrics like “Strange how a stranger can know you better than you ever knew yourself.”
“Carry Me Home” – “Carry Me Home” starts with a summer hippie vibe. It’s lighthearted and sweet, eventually giving way to big drums and triumphant horns. Michelle describes falling in love to having too much too drink. She’s seeing double in a spinning room, but that’s because of this new person in her life. It also brings up her uncertainty about new romance after a divorce: “I think I love, but what do I know?”
“Not A Love Song” – This time, Michelle compares alcohol to a breakup. While he drinks to feel better, she drinks to forget. Their relationship is like a hangover. “Not A Love Song” is a bitter breakup song complemented by upbeat music. Even though he said “together forever whatever,” she says she wishes they’d never met. Even if she sometimes feels sad about their divorce, he’s just “somebody I wasted my youth on.”
“Last Night” – Track #11 begins with fizzy music and a warm vibe. Michelle sings to a new love about making the most of their time together. She wants to love like it’s the last time. After a failed relationship, she wants to make the most of her new one. It has energy and urgency, and though it may sound like a typical “live it up” song at first, it’s more poignant and meaningful.
“Bad Side” – Michelle offers a soft, giddy love song with an edge on “Bad Side.” She admits “you put me through hell, but I like the burn.” Alongside handclaps and delicate vocals, Michelle delivers and unconditional love song.
“Shadow” – The album starts to drift back into the eerie side heard on “Hopeless Romantic” earlier. On “Shadow,” the verses are dark and haunting, Michelle declaring “you’re a book and I’ve memorized every page.” But the choruses pick up, feeling more energetic and defiant. It’s standout track on Hopeless Romantic.
“City” – Hopeless Romantic ends with a “City.” The song opens with old, spooky sounds. But then acoustic guitar comes in and offsets the retro spookiness. Similar to “Knock Yourself Out,” Michelle sings about finding the courage to move on over a plodding beat. In spite of fears of blowing out like a candle, she’s also discovering little pieces she didn’t know she had in her. Throughout the song, her co-writer and boyfriend Patrick Carney joins her on vocals. The song softly fades out for the last minute, winding down a strong, emotional album that captures where Michelle has been all these years.
Highlights on Hopeless Romantic include “You’re Good,” “Fault Line,” “Hopeless Romantic,” “Living A Lie,” “Knock Yourself Out,” “Temporary Feeling,” and “Shadow.”
You can buy Hopeless Romantic on iTunes or stream it on Spotify now.