The early 2000s were an incredible period for alternative music — especially those in the singer-songwriter vein. From Vanessa Carlton to Avril Lavigne, pop anthems were produced at an alarming rate. But the true pioneer of this movement was Michelle Branch, responsible for insanely catchy, cathartic tracks like “Everywhere,” “All You Wanted” and “Breathe.”

Fourteen years after her initial success, Branch is back. Delayed by issues with previous record label Warner Bros., Branch recorded her newest effort Hopeless Romantic with Black Keys drummer and current boyfriend Patrick Carney. The result is vastly different from the sound that marked the early 2000s, but it’s nonetheless a mostly solid, varied addition to modern pop.

The album opens with a rocky start on “Best You Ever,” a bass heavy track about self-efficacy in love. It’s a bit cliché to begin a record titled Hopeless Romantic with such a track, but it’s far from indicative of the rest of the material. The instrumentals are a great example of Branch’s expanding sound but do little to resurrect the song beyond its basic content.

The album quickly reaches what can be expected from modern pop standards, but rarely exceeds it. “You’re Good” is easily comparable to a Carly Rae Jepsen track, while single “Fault Line” is the most uniquely Branch’s. “Just when I was thinking that I couldn't be lonely any longer / You start to pull me under when I try to keep my head above the water” Branch sings on the first verse of the song, utilizing a metaphorical approach to her lyricism.

Branch hasn’t forgotten how to write a pop banger though. “Heartbreak Now” brings in poppy horn melodies over dreamy synth, and it stands out among the rest. It’s a beautifully crafted track where Carney’s production shines brightly — let’s be honest, horns make almost any song better.

Branch also isn’t afraid to stray towards the more R&B side of pop — a scene mostly dominated by Lana Del Rey and FKA twigs. The title track puts a rollicking beat to the music, while Branch brings her prior soprano tone down to a deeper slurring. Again, it’s a great showcase of diversity on the record, but it also fails to be very memorable, despite sharing its name with the record.

What we really needed from Branch was a continuation of the catharsis from her previous two records — they were drenched in emotion. While Hopeless Romantic features some good pop tunes, it’s heavy pop focus masks the characteristic emotion that launched Branch into the spotlight. Despite the separation of over a decade, it’s impossible to separate turn-of-the-millennium Branch from Branch today; the record just feels like less of an artistic progression, and more of a decent entry point into modern pop.

Competition also detracts from the record. In a world with pop giants like Grimes and Marina and the Diamonds, pop artists need a sound that strongly differentiates themselves in the “Top 40” sea. Again, Hopeless Romantic is great, enjoyable music, but it lacks a signature feel that would compel listeners to keep returning. I want to love it as badly as I love Spirit Room, but the fact of the matter is that today’s world is cruel, and it doesn’t contain the spark needed to survive on the battlefield of pop music.

Branch’s third studio album contains fun pop tunes with classic (probably too classic at times) heartbreak lyricism. Its sound is thankfully varied and rarely stale, but it also pales in its attempt to be compelling. Branch is back, and if her record is any indication, her continued evolution in the modern world of pop could be something to pay attention to in the future — but for now we’ll have to wait for her to find a sound that is hers alone. 

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