Review Summary: She's only 17, but that's old enough for me
Remember when it seemed unnatural for a teenager to be a bona fide star? Back when it was weird to see 12-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes on the red carpet at the Oscars clinging to hope that she might win the Best Actress Oscar? Well, things have changed since then. It seems like every single day a new Greyson Chance is popping up on Good Morning America, primped and primed to perform his cover of “Bad Romance.” Meanwhile, pop radio is dominated by the likes of teen songstresses Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez. Melissa Joan Hart seemed to sum up modern pop culture best when she said, “If Clarissa [Explains it All] was on the air today, I would have a record deal, a hit movie and a clothing line.” This isn’t hyperbolic, it’s just a fact.
So why does all this matter? Because, like Ms. Hart, Michelle Branch was overlooked by the media that now covets talented teenagers. Branch, who was 17 when The Spirit Room was released, never had a chance to make it big like she would if she was recording today. Yes, The Spirit Room went platinum, but Taylor Swift’s Speak Now did it in one week instead of the eight months it took Branch to reach the same sales milestone. Instead of being able to ride a media hype train all the way to success, Branch had to get by on good, old-fashioned musical and vocal talent. In a way, she paved the way for teen songbirds like Swift. The best example of this is Branch’s first single, “Everywhere.” “Everywhere,” is a rather standard pop radio song; a description of how it feels when you have a crush on somebody for the first time. But, underneath the overtly ‘high school fantasy’ exterior, is a description of actual feelings. Branch doesn’t feel vengeance or wistfulness, she just feels and describes her genuine emotions.
The Spirit Room panders toward the actual for two reasons. The first being rather obvious: Branch wrote all of her own music. Despite a few rhymes that border on second-grade level- “some say I’m paranormal/so I just bend their spoon- she does an excellent job with communicating as well as with writing hooks. “All You Wanted,” is probably the catchiest song ever written while the chorus to “You Get Me” drips with feeling and yearning. Branch isn’t immune to revealing her aspirations at popularity and having a boyfriend like every other high schooler, but she does so in a mature enough way that it’s easy to forget that she’s in high school. There’s no name-calling or bashing, no tear-stained confessionals or guy worshipping, but again description. Branch does an excellent job of laying all of her emotion on the line- judgment be damned. This album isn’t about pandering to a bunch of tweens who will spout off about how ‘Michelle Branch writes [my] life,’ it’s about Michelle Branch translating her feelings to words. That these words happen to be relatable is an unintended consequence inherent in teenage writing.
As far as Branch’s vocal delivery goes, it’s more or less peerless for someone so young. She sounds like a young Sheryl Crow, and pours her heart into every line. You can almost feel the passion extended by Branch and poured into the album. The songs are all different enough to allow her to show off her range as well as her skill on guitar and piano. The album obviously caters towards Branch’s skillset of softer pop, but she experiments with genres like pop-rock and country too, refusing to limit herself and therefore being typecast. Even the lovelorn ballad “Goodbye to You,” which could have been a fluff track, is handled with vocal maturity and a serious attitude rarely exhibited by young artists, especially those that have been turned into a commodity by the corporations.
In retrospect, it’s probably for the best that nobody tried to commercialize Michelle Branch into a commodity. Had somebody noticed her talent after her first album, Broken Bracelets, and tried to make her pander to the crowd that she already writes to unintentionally, it would have changed her. Little moments like the record scratching on “You Set Me Free,” and her foray into country “Here With Me,” may have been eliminated and made the record less personal, less authentic. In a cultural climate that values the supposed authenticity of teenage words, it’s nice to hear a teen that didn’t feel the need to sound real- she was just born that way.