The last time Michelle Branch put out a solo album was in 2003. Obviously, pop music has drastically changed since then and, as a result, so has Michelle Branch. The early 2000s were much more kind to the pop-rock blend than the current pop charts are, a fact that’s reflected in the album’s current composition.
Hopeless Romantic seems to have eschewed the ‘pop’ in the pop-rock blend, instead creating something with a thick rock and roll sound. While there aren’t any radio friendly standout singles, the album as a whole presents a unified front, showing off a new image for Branch as she makes her return to the music industry.
As you can expect from the title, Hopeless Romantic is about romance. The songs highlight Branch navigating her former relationship with ex-husband Teddy Landau and her current relationship with Patrick Carney, drummer for the Black Keys and producer for this album. You can definitely see his influence writ large across the entire album. In an Entertainment Weekly article, Branch states that Carney pushed her to make the album sound like her…so why does it sound so much like him? More of the sound of the album can be traced to their “Tighten Up” over her “Are You Happy Now.” People who still think of Michelle Branch in that early 2000s light and airy guitar vibe she had on her hit “Everywhere” are probably going to be disappointed.
The album as a whole features a much thicker sound: 1980s keyboards, heavy guitars, stacked vocals, tons of vocal modulations. The distortion and thickness sound good but style occasionally overtakes substance—there are multiple points on the album where due to all the vocal manipulation, the lyrics are slightly indecipherable. Of course, artists change and grow and are perfectly able to take their album in whatever direction they want. It’s simply that this reinterpretation caught me (and probably a lot of other people) DRASTICALLY off guard.
These songs are big productions. They’re loud, they’re jam-packed with all sorts of big, swelling, forceful arrangements and instrumentation. Even the more ‘guitar and vocals’ songs such as the highlight “Knock Yourself Out” feature exceedingly thick and heavy production. The production is very much the star of this album, which is a shame. Branch has such a beautiful, crystal clear voice, which was part of the reason why she achieved mainstream success in the first place. Here, it’s a bit muddled under vocal tinkering, ever-present echo, so much harmony, and thick instrumentation that just the additions completely overshadow Branch’s actual voice.
Still, that’s not to say the album isn’t bad—just unexpected. The album has an amazingly unified sound, both a blessing and a curse. All of the songs fit perfectly well and the album itself is expertly arranged. There aren’t any awkward transitions or shifts from song to song. However, very few songs on the album actually stand out. Hopeless Romantic is wonderful background music, the sort of thing that would play in the background of a coffee shop, the Starbucks featured album of the week. The songs that stand out are the ones that tie into the thick-sounding production of the album but do something different with it. Aside from the previously mentioned “Knock Yourself Out,” another highlight is “Not A Love Song,” a fun little kiss-off number about how Branch and her ex are never ever getting back together.
If you like Michelle Branch, listen to this album. And, if you like female-fronted indie rock with an emphasis on rock, I’d also suggest listening to this album. But for the rest of you, it’s honestly hit or miss. I don’t regret listening to Hopeless Romantic and overall it’s an amazingly thorough and well-put together album, though I doubt I’ll queue it up again any time soon.