Fourth album from American singer-songwriter plots a relatively safe musical course amid turbulent personal life events
With so much musical experience behind her, it is easy to forget that Michelle Branch is not yet 40. Her early start in music, including Game Of Love, a Santana co-write and her best-known single, has led to a consistently strong body of work.
The Trouble With Fever is no exception in this run, though it does arrive on the back of a blaze of publicity with her marriage to Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, who co-produced the album. With allegations of infidelity, the birth of a second child and her arrest for domestic violence charges – quickly dropped – it is tempting to go hunting through the new album for clues to their differences. What you actually end up with is a set of songs showing Branch’s maturity and ease with the songwriter’s craft.
The album was written in lockdown, beginning as a diversion to stave off boredom amid the routine, but soon developing its own form and mood. Branch writes fluently, and though she may not quite hit a killer melody, she maintains a high quality threshold, singing from the heart. Lyrically she is on her game, too, nowhere more so than I’m A Man. This song began life from a sympathetic perspective at the pressures and expectations men experience, with special reference to her teenage son, but as the song grew it could not help but incorporate the more obvious struggles women have had to contend with. As a result it has a curious and compelling tension, Branch singing, “I’m a man, and I’m ready to go and I can’t get it up and I can’t let it show ‘cause I’m a man.”
Not My Lover is a powerful song, a passionate piece of writing where Branch uses the upper reaches of her voice for the first time, though it ends curiously in a musical mid-sentence. You is a powerful utterance, undergoing bouts of self examination but applying strong resolve to its fine chorus.
At times the album has a weary undertow. Beating On The Outside drags its feet as Branch muses how “I’ve been waiting such a long time”. The music on You Got Me Where You Want Me reeks of lockdown boredom, though Zut Alors! briefly finds a wilder side. “I get the feeling that we’re on drugs”, she sings, “what will happen when it’s not enough?”
In the end, The Trouble With Fever is not quite as far out as its title suggests, plotting a relatively safe course through the middle of the country-pop interface. Branch’s lyrical savvy and clear communication keep it well clear of the mundane, though you get the recurring impression that she is capable of taking a few more risks. Perhaps those turbulent recent life events will further fuel the songwriting fire.