Pop certainly loves a comeback. It’s kind of, like, its thing. Remember JoJo? She’s back (and, ugh, “Vibe” is a bop). Vanessa Carlton had an underrated folk-pop album in 2015. Dido tried to do it in 2013. It’s then perhaps unsurprising that our favorite alt-pop stars of the early-aughts, Nelly Furtado and Michelle Branch, have new comeback albums. Given their proximity to each other in terms of peak popularity, it’s interesting (although also expected, given the shimmery, genre-defying nature of the music industry today) that they’ve both taken the introspective indie route. But although Furtado’s The Ride and Branch’s Hopeless Romantic fit into certain tropes (that we love, don’t get us wrong) in the current pop landscape, the way they express it indicates the very different paths available to two female singer-songwriters reasserting their existence (and relevance) almost 15 years later.
Furtado’s new album is gorgeous, inventive, and innovative -- expectedly so, based on her involvement with James Congleton, a producer she met through St. Vincent’s Annie Clark. Like Clark’s sound, The Ride is full of discordant guitar riffs behind soaring, ethereal vocals; a soundtrack of tunes you could both dance to and read to. It sounds almost like St. Vincent meets Tove Styrke; experimental rock tempered by an artists with roots in folk-pop. Album closer “Phoenix” might be a bit heavy-handed, but lyrically gives you a sense of what the record means to Furtado -- “It's time to find your wings again and turn your face towards the sun,” “like a phoenix / rising from the ashes,” “you’re gonna be alright.” She calls it her “hangover album,” a series of tracks over which she’s recuperating and will, perhaps, be reborn. It’s poignant, lush, and hopeful too; this is the first record Furtado has released independently on her label Nelstar and you can almost feel her stretching beyond the constraints of what a traditional label would allow. “It was so great to have a megaphone of a huge label supporting me for almost two decades,” she says in her Billboard interview, “because now I have this audience and it’s so wonderful to have my creative output match the brevity with which I can release things now that I’m independent.”
Branch’s album is also beautiful and refreshing, but darker and more rock-centered than Furtado’s -- think something like Jenny Lewis meets Angel Olsen. Hopeless Romantic, co-produced and co-written by The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney (who Branch started dating mid-way through making the record -- a hopeless romantic, indeed), is a mix of upbeat yet sad love songs and wry breakup anthems. The album has a feeling of catharsis -- this is the first record Branch has been allowed to release for nearly 14 years, and you can feel her joy but also the regret in being forced to wait so long. The title track swoons “‘Cause I'm a hopeless romantic / When I should run for my life / Honey, I don't understand it / ‘Cause it's magic, but it's tragic.” Branch is a musician who wants to express herself and emote through her music, but it’s been a somewhat hopeless journey -- until now -- with two albums shelved at her previous label and years of creativity wasted.
Consider their titles: Furtado’s hearkens to journey, adventure -- “the ride” of life. Branch’s is hopeful but reserved -- there’s art in being a romantic, but the hopelessness of striving for it can be bleak.
Top tracks -- The Ride’s “Magic,” “Live,” and “Sticks & Stones” all stand out, as do Hopeless Romantic’s “Carry Me Home,” “Best You Ever,” and “Fault Line.”