Photo Credit: Sonya Jasinski
It’s fair to say that Michelle Branch has spent nearly two decades living in the shadow of her first two albums – 2001’s The Spirit Room and 2003’s Hotel Paper. How could she not after taking a fourteen-year break from solo output between her second and third LP? If Branch’s fourth, and newest, album The Trouble With Fever has received more attention than one would expect, it’s largely due to the personal circus that has accompanied it. In 2017, Branch became engaged to Patrick Carney, with whom she had two children. Then, just weeks before Fever’s release, she announced their separation and accused him of infidelity – she then got arrested for slapping him (a charge that has since been dismissed). Oh, and by the way, Carney produced the entirety of this album. One has to imagine that the two’s relationship was at least in half-decent shape when work on Fever began, and yet their creative partnership sounds consistently dysfunctional here. The fuzzy, imposing blues-rock courtesy of Carney almost always runs counter to Branch’s greatest strengths as a singer and songwriter – that is, her vulnerability and quiet power.
When the album does succeed, it feels as if it does so in spite of the pairing, not because of it. Though Branch has an unfortunate tendency to use “oohs” and “ahs” when actual lyrics would be more fitting, it remains clear that she has something worthwhile to say with The Trouble With Fever. Though the power of the opener, “Closest Thing to Heaven” is diminished by an imposing chorus filled with fuzzy electric guitars, it shines in its verses. Quiet and understated, it evokes Liz Phair’s excellent “Soberish,” finding Branch at the bar during the last call as doubts emerge over whether calling it quits on a relationship was the right move. Branch – who solely wrote the entirety of Fever – offers a fantastic meditation on all the reasons we leave relationships and all the reasons we find ourselves pulled back towards those who alternately seem like strangers and like they know us better than we know ourselves.
Fever’s best two songs come as we approach its midway point. “Not My Lover” is filled with incisive, cutting put-downs as she demands a lover say how he really feels “to my face.” There is, of course, an undeniable tendency to speculate whether the song is autobiographical with lines like, “When you said you didn’t love her // You were just a liar.” But, what’s most remarkable about “Not My Lover” is that it has, far and away, the most indelible melody of any song on Fever – the sort of stuff country-pop dreams are made of.
The following song “When That Somebody is You” is, by contrast, deeply caring; an empathetic portrait of a troubled person. No words are minced in Branch’s portrait of them – their life is a “total disaster” – but she sings with such deep remorse and understanding of how a person could end up like this. “Ain’t it hard to show up for somebody // When that somebody is you,” she sings as a way of consolation. In the outro, the language of you/yours is replaced by that of me/mine – blurring the distinction between narrator and subject. The whole song is such a great representation of the immense, yet subtle, power of Branch as both a lyricist and vocalist.
Yet, Branch stumbles when she extends herself outside of her wheelhouse – at least that’s why lead single “I’m A Man” fails; delivering on the dread the most cynical among us feel upon hearing the words “protest song.” Released less than a month after the devastating Dobbs ruling – which overturned the half-century-old Roe v. Wade – it unsubtly criticizes the many advantages of being a man in modern-day society in the lyrical style of Taylor Swift’s “The Man.” It jarringly swifts between a male and female vantage point, while throwing in a number of not-so-thinly veiled jabs at a man with erectile dysfunction. “Zut Alors!” is even more regrettable, and one struggles to even understand why it was ever conceived – it’s hard to think of a song description that sounds less suited to Branch than a “bilingual Europop dance number about drug use.” Like the worst moments on Fever, its lyrics don’t seem to ring true to Branch’s own reality and its sound certainly doesn’t play to Branch’s strengths.
In contrast, when Branch seems to take control of the creative process, the results can be truly compelling. There’s a brief moment on “Beating on the Outside” where the Americana arrangements fade out and it’s just Branch singing, alone, at the piano. The moment only lasts a couple of seconds, but it’s enough to offer a tantalizing glimpse at a better path not taken. Because of all of Branch’s affecting lyricism, it’s hard to appreciate what she has to say on account of Carney’s baffling production choices. I guess it’s like what she sings on closer “I’m sorry,” “There’s nothing I can do to make it okay // And I’ll get blamed for his mistakes.”
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