Michelle Branch released her last solo album, 2003’s addictive Hotel Paper, 14 years ago. But the singer-songwriter, best known for her ubiquitous 2001 hit “Everywhere,” spent the better part of the intervening decade locked in music industry purgatory: She turned in two full LPs to her label, Warner Bros. Records, which shelved both indefinitely.
Now, Branch has returned on a new label, Verve, and with a new sound. Produced by Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney - who asked Branch “Where have you been?” when the two met at a Grammys party in 2015 - her fourth album, Hopeless Romantic, charts new ground, going beyond the simple math of adding the blues-rock percussionist and anthemic pop-rocker together.
Across Romantic’s 14 tracks, Branch plays with psych-rock (“You’re Good”), ’60s pop (“Heart Break Now”), dreamy synth jams (“Shadow”), and swirling R&B (the title track). On “The City,” a duet with Atlas Genius’ Keith Jeffery, a delicate blend of electro and Music City melodies line the singers’ notes; “Fault Line,” which she wrote with former M83 member Morgan Kibby, is ’70s AM gold. Her musical wandering doesn’t always land perfectly - “Knock Yourself Out” feels like an Alanis Morrisette reject, while “Bad Side” could use some CHRVCHES-style bombast - but Branch’s commitment sells the project as a whole.
And for all that’s different, Branch’s longtime lyrical preoccupation, the intense dissection of love lost and found, remains intact. In fact, Romantic grapples with each side equally. In 2015, the 33-year-old divorced Teddy Landau, her husband of 10 years, and biting kiss-offs here like “Best You Ever” and “Not A Love Song” bleed with regret and remorse; the jagged “Living a Lie” captures the singer losing sleep and stuck in a life she doesn’t want. But slotted between the moments of hurt are scenes of falling in love, like the wide-eyed “Carry Me Home” and flirtatious “Fault Line,” which were inspired by her budding romance with Carney. “I think I love you,” she coos on “Home,” “but what do I know?” You might wonder the same about the collection itself.
“Not A Love Song”
With a heart-swelling backing that sounds ripped from a John Hughes soundtrack and the opening lines, “You were my first ever / I wish we never met / You drink to feel better / I drink to forget,” Branch lands the theme song for countless heartbreaks to come.
The album’s most singable hook teeters on saccharine - “The night is just a shadow falling on you!” she promises, “So don’t be scared!” - but as Branch saves the song with her gleeful, unapologetic delivery, you’ll realize resistance is futile.