December 22, 2014 Leave a Comment
Part 12 of 12 Albums That Stuck With Me
Association with strong memories gets a lot of music stuck in people’s heads. “Favorite song” is not a meritocratic competition, even one judged solely on personal preference. That’s why I was so pleased with the phrasing of this meme a year ago – albums that “stuck with me” rather than “are objectively the best” or “I like the most”.
Take Hotel Paper. Part of its resonance for me is the timing of my discovery of it. “Tuesday Morning” played on my car stereo when I’d just had a very similar experience – shall we say, a significant milestone early in a relationship – on the same day of the week. Thus the stage was set for “Find Your Way Back” to be my personal soundtrack when that same relationship got temporarily rocky and estranged for a few weeks.
The album has quirks that are alternately irritating and immensely endearing. Branch sometimes sings like she’s never heard vowels pronounced before, swapping i for a or e for o like they’re Pokemon cards. A light percussion click on “One of These Days”, almost certainly inserted by a producer, is I swear lifted straight from the default Windows XP sound theme.
If there’s a formula for poppy solo female singer-songwriters, Branch nails it. There’s insecurity and girl power both in these mostly romantically-tinged songs; a quarter of them end by repeating the first line of the first verse, oh so soaked with meaning; one, as specified in all such devil’s pacts, is titled “Breathe”.
One has to imagine if there was a debate about using the name for track 4, “Empty Handed”, since the word is prominent in that song’s chorus as well. With a more interesting chord progression and more creative lyrics (see: repeating first line), “Empty Handed” was never destined to be the hit that “Breathe” was so it got the more original title too.
None of this is to say that I don’t genuinely love this album. I do. I sometimes refer to Michelle Branch’s work as my “guilty pleasure”, as if she’s the most artificial superstar ever created (she’s not) and the music is blandly catchy with no real craft put into it (it’s totally not) so it doesn’t deserve my precious ears. It’s unfair and I should stop. Hotel Paper has honesty and poise surpassing many records, let alone platinum-selling ones.
It’s that honesty and vulnerability seeping through that keeps me returning. I suspect Hotel Paper is not Branch’s own favorite among her albums, given her turn toward country in later releases. It’s slicker and sparklier than independent singer-songwriters usually get, but it works.
(Note to any and all exes obsessively reading my blog: ending this series of posts on this song is in no way a message about my yearning and aching for you. It’s just the way it worked out. Emergent patterns and all.)