Michelle Branch’s first country single as a solo artist—after splitting with former BFF and The Wreckers cohort Jessica Harp—finds her doing her best impression of Michelle Branch.
There is little doubt in the mind of this observer that Branch’s conversion to country music is a commercially driven and carefully calculated occurrence, and “Sooner or Later” serves as a prime example of why that shift in direction was both a smart move and a necessary action.
Save for the overlay of some steel guitar and a few other trivial aesthetic tidbits, “Sooner or Later” could have appeared—in content, tone and sound—on any of Michelle Branch’s previous efforts, even dating back to 2001’s The Spirit Room (which spawned the ubiquitous “Everywhere”).
In a practical sense, the fact that we can trace the lineage of Branch’s journey from then to country isn’t at all surprising. After all, “Everything” was co-written and produced by none other than one John Shanks, the musical mastermind who has contributed to the success of Keith Urban, among other country stalwarts.
So the formula that produces Michelle Branch’s music has remained steady, while the terrain beneath her—both in the country music world and in the pop world—has shifted. As pop as “Sooner or Later” may be, there is no place for this type of acoustic-driven chick singer/songwriter on pop radio. That format has changed, and the bulk of its hits now incorporate elements of dance, electronic and/or hip hop into essentially every pop deviation. From Katy Perry to Pink to Lady Gaga–the females currently burning up the pop charts–the mainstream has changed considerably since 2001, leaving artists like Michelle Branch out in the cold.
Even the rhythmic foundation of Taylor Swift’s crossover mixes sound far different than this, utilizing more of a pulsing, pounding backdrop.
Branch’s music is loosely derived from the sound of 90s artists like Sheryl Crow. And there were significant country influences and leanings within much of that music, so in some ways this seems more like a reclassification than a significant musical reclamation.
And musically, it works. “Sooner or Later” is far from insipid, and she sings it with a sassy, subtle modern twang. She stands out as a female vocalist in this format, a unique, powerful voice that really knows how to sell a song. That’s something the format is lacking, and that’s why I believe this release will be a successful one.
In the end, however, it does little for Branch’s longevity. As opportunistic and well-timed as her conversion may be, it shields the fact that the reason she no longer has a place in the pop world is because she has never been able to—or has never chosen to—deviate from the sound with which she emerged. “Sooner or Later” demonstrates no musical progression over the music she released in 2001. And considering it’s been six years since her last solo effort, that is disturbing. While she may be able to strike as a hot iron in a format clamoring for anything interesting, if she’s unable to offer anything new to listeners in the future she will lose this audience’s attention just as she lost the last.