Home Music Holy Hell Holy Hell! The Spirit Room Turns 20

Holy Hell! The Spirit Room Turns 20

A few years before the sounds of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” or Ashlee Simpson’s “Pieces of Me” would be dominating mainstream pop radio, a young woman named Michelle Branch was quietly pioneering a pop rock sound that would come to be associated with the early 2000s for decades to come. After gaining traction as a musician in her hometown of Sedona, Arizona in the late ‘90s—where she would record a self-produced album called Broken Bracelet, based on a bracelet that Steve Poltz gave her and said, “When it breaks, you’ll be famous”—Branch toured with Hanson in 2000 and moved to Los Angeles the following year to sign with Warner Bros., when she was just 18. The Spirit Room, written almost entirely by Branch and produced mainly by John Shanks, would be bookended by the success of the singles “Everywhere,” “All You Wanted” and “Goodbye to You,” songs that not only sound just as loveable two decades later but would ultimately become wise beyond their years, largely influencing a generation of young female artists.

The Spirit Room is immediately nostalgic for post-Y2K children who have lived long enough to recall the rise and fall of “Total Request Live” or MuchMusic but is also worthy of a revisit or even a first listen for generations both before and in between, since the influence of Branch’s sound and lyrics cannot be understated—and yet they are mostly lost to history. While Avril Lavigne’s highly successful debut Let Go would appear the following year, it simply would not have existed if it hadn’t been preceded by The Spirit Room 10 months earlier. One could even argue that the pop rock sound of the mid-2000s, largely engineered by Dr. Luke and popularized by Kelly Clarkson, The Veronicas and Pink, might not even exist if it hadn’t been for Branch and the intense yet easy Top 40 sound of yesteryear that went, “‘Cause you’re everywhere to me/ And when I close my eyes, it’s you I see/ You’re everything I know/ That makes me believe/ I’m not alone/ I’m not alone.”

During an era of profound uncertainty that was ushered in without our consent, other Branch lyrics from The Spirit Room continue to resonate just as strongly as they did from the backseat speakers of your aunt’s minivan on a fall afternoon in 2001. “If you want to/ I can save you/ I can take you away from here/ So lonely inside/ So busy out there/ And all you wanted was somebody who cares.” (The sound and influence for Avril’s “Losing Grip” thus writing itself, no?) “I still get lost in your eyes/ And it seems that I can’t live a day without you/ Closin’ my eyes, and you chase my thoughts away/ To a place where I am blinded by the light/ But it’s not right,” she coos on “Goodbye to You,” as you may have heard on last night’s episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” It’s the youthful simplicity of Branch and her lyrics that make them somehow complex, returning the older listener to a time when everything felt like the end of the world and reminding us that feeling deeply can be just as much as blessing as it is a curse. 2001 teens had The Spirit Room the same way that 2021 teens have Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour.

While other pop girls whose sound and image Branch helped instigate would come to rely a bit more on gimmicks for chart performance, the singer’s own image was remarkably laidback and reminiscent of a previous decade’s look on perhaps Jewel, Paula Cole or even Alanis Morissette. This rings especially true considering that Branch successors like Clarkson or Pink would become synonymous with the early days of an era in pop music that bitter critics and commentators like to refer to as when pop artists stopped writing their own songs. And while there’s certainly no judgment here for a pop singer recording a song not written by them, Branch represented a rare songwriting talent that was ultimately lost to a period when Max Martin and Rami Yacoub had already plotted their takeover of North American pop.

As a result, Branch’s commercial success lived and died just before the advent of YouTube and other early social networking platforms that would continue boosting the careers of her descendants. While The Spirit Room remains an early aughts classic—less of a one-hit wonder than Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” but retaining a similar quality and sentiment nonetheless—it would be Branch’s follow-up Hotel Paper that would solidify her as something short of the pop rock princess who, to unfortunately borrow a phrase heard around the pop culture Twittersphere, essentially invented all of your favorites. But even as euphoric tracks like “Everywhere” or “Breathe” appeared in high-profile trailers for “Gilmore Girls,” “Sex and the City” and 13 Going on 30, so little of Branch’s legacy is remembered or acknowledged as it reaches what can be referred to as its golden age of nostalgic rebranding.

Which, on the one hand, somehow makes sense: after The Spirit Room and Hotel Paper, Branch’s solo releases all but vanished as she formed the country duo The Wreckers with former backup singer Jessica Harp. She announced a third solo album called Everything Comes and Goes in 2007, which would ultimately materialize as a six-song EP in 2010. Branch would promise another album called West Coast Time the following year, supposedly a return to her pop rock roots, that would never see the light of day. After nearly 15 years with Warner Bros. and still only two full-length albums to show for it, Branch signed with Verve Records for what would finally become her third studio album, an indie pop rock record called Hopeless Romantic, in 2017. While other stars of her era like Mandy Moore or Jessica Simpson have been able to enjoy something of a renaissance, Branch is still mostly forgotten—unless Spotify recommends her after you’ve blasted Moore’s “I Wanna Be with You.” But that could remain to be seen, since during a livestream earlier this year, the singer did supposedly promise that she’d be re-recording her first album for its 20th anniversary. Whatever the case, if nostalgic rebranding has taught us anything, it’s exactly what Branch promised: she’ll find her way back to us.

  • Michelle Branch: Hopeless Romantic

    Branch deserves better, is capable of better. …
  • Liz Phair: Soberish

    Although representing a fully grown, confessional version of an indie rock legend, the end…
  • Holy Hell! Legally Blonde Turns 20

    Two decades later, Elle Woods’ simple, timeless message of always believing in yourself fi…
  • Bebe Rexha: Better Mistakes

    More commercially focused than her debut, it continues Rexha’s illuminating exploration of…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Liz Phair: Soberish

Although representing a fully grown, confessional version of an indie rock legend, the end…