‘Breathe In. Breathe Out.': The Resuscitation of Hilary Duff (Album Review)
The last time Hilary Duff released a studio album, a tweet was still primarily considered to be the sound that a bird made, tinder was still what you used to light a fire (no, not that kind of wood), and your average teen's sense of self-worth hadn't yet relied solely on virtual followers, Tumblr notes and Instagram likes.
My, how times have changed.
Hilary Duff has been out of the music scene for the better half of a decade, and her Disney princess status — a much-coveted calling card which hoisted her into teeny-bop superstardom in the early-to-mid '00's with dizzyingly cute cuts like "Come Clean," "So Yesterday" and "Why Not?" — is now all but irrelevant to a culture of hashtag-happy teens who worship at the feet of doe-eyed Vine sensations and newer network TV-bred starlets like Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande who have twerked and ponytail-whipped their way to the top.
Then again, the actress-slash-singer has never belonged entirely to the pop music scene, and her discography would surely never exist without Lizzie McGuire. Even now, she stays torn between promoting her hit TV Land series Younger and her most recent foray into music.
In fact, it's no small miracle that her latest record, Breathe In. Breathe Out. (out today, June 16), even happened at all.
The Hilary Comeback Album has sonically shape-shifted over the past two years — at least, according to Hilary herself.
"I'm super into EDM," she told Idolator in 2013, explaining that she had a "pretty clear direction" of where she was heading on the dance floor. Yet only one year later, "Chasing The Sun" happened.
Missed that one? So did most of the world. The Sheryl Crow-lite beach bop was inoffensive and sweet enough, in the same way a vanilla-scented Bath & Body Works shower gel gift set is a nice gesture, but it failed to do her any favors as far as generating real heat for her return.
"I got inspired by some of the folkier-type music. I love Mumford & Sons and I love The Lumineers," she revealed to PopJustice in July last year. In essence, she'd folked it all up. And while the vastly punchier follow-up "All About You" proved a step in the right direction, the prospect of a Hilary Duff folk-pop record was still met with thunderous groan of disinterest...but not for long.
With a new year came a third swerve to find a hit for Hil, all thanks to pop music's most reliable resource: The Swedes. The Bloodshy co-crafted, Tove Lo co-penned "Sparks" arrived in early April, providing a thumping, thrillingly fierce return to electro-pop form for Duff that recalled her grand opus Dignity, a still-killer collection released in that glorious span of time in pop known as 2007 which found Hilary flirting with a synth-pop sound well before Gaga po-po-poked her disco stick into pop radio. Still as revolutionary? Not exactly. But the right move for Hilary in 2015? Entirely.
With Breathe In, the pop princess has effectively landed somewhere between all of those ideas, resulting in a set of thumping EDM festival-friendly cuts, sass-filled electro kiss-offs and the best of the folk-pop bonfire bops left over from the scrapped first go-around. And while it isn't quite a sequel to Dignity, Breathe gets closer to fulfilling that fan-driven fantasy than anyone was likely expecting a year prior.
An alternate title for Breathe In. Breathe Out.? The Emancipation of Hili.
In the space between 2007 and now, the pop princess has gotten married, had a baby boy, separated from her husband and, eventually, divorced. Simply put, the girl's been through it.
Accordingly, she's channeled that wild mess of emotions into what is, ultimately, a post-divorce millennial pop record: She rages ("Lies"), seethes ("Arms Around A Memory"), anguishes ("Stay In Love"), reflects ("Tattoo"), regroups ("Breathe In. Breathe Out."), rises above ("One In A Million") and even starts looking for love again ("Confetti") — or maybe just a little fun on the side ("My Kind").
That's right: Hilary's on the apps in 2015.
When the singer surfaced on Tinder weeks ago in New York City, tabloids began taking notice immediately. TMZ speculated that Hilary was shooting a reality show. Wendy Williams called her profile photo "suggestive," and likened it to Hilary joining Grindr. (#Masc4Duff). But as it turned out, she was using those dates with a few lucky fellas for her "Sparks" video — a cute idea in theory, until the final product ended up playing more like a Tinder advertisement (that voiceover, why?) interspersed with a few all-too-brief, eye-popping dance sequences rather than an actual music video. (Fans weren't having it — so much so, her team eventually released a dance-only "Fan Demanded Version" — a most apt title.)
The newly single pop momma keeps the sparks coming on Breathe with "My Kind," letting her gray-blue hair down above a cool, throbbing synth pulse that recalls Becky G's "Can't Stop Dancin'" as she explores her singledom all over again. "You're real...for now," she teases, "let my walls come down tonight." A one night Duff stand? As a wise young woman once pondered many moons ago: Why not take a crazy chance?
Hilary's in the mood to dust off and dance in 2015, and when she does, she goes off: "Confetti" erupts from the speakers in a poof of glitter (and confetti, clearly), like a Duff-shaped version of Zedd's "Clarity." Complete with a Belinda Carlisle "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" lyrical reference, the cutesy cut — a reworking of a demo by Estonian goddess Kerli — sees the singer going full-on raver girl and blissfully exploding with glee: "If I fall, you better catch me / You're turning me...into confetti!"
Hilary's our resilient, ever-#relatable pop princess-next-door, and when she asserts herself, it's a win for everyone involved: "One In A Million," arguably the album's most immediate smash-in-waiting, plays like a euphoria-inducing Kylie Minogue classic, besting Minogue's own "million" from her latest effort, Kiss Me Once's "Million Miles." And with the help of Tove Lo (those signature Tove songwriting tics are in full force — "uh-uh!"), Hil's delivered a younger cousin to Minogue's own blissful kiss-off, "Get Outta My Way."
"I'm one...in a million!" Hilary triumphantly declares, happily dancing across the grave of her failed relationship. It's the kind of shoulda-put-a-ring-on-it self-empowerment anthem that doesn't need to slap us over the face to make a point, but rather guide us with a helping hand toward the dance floor.
Life ain't all right swipes, Kylie-esque coos and late night flings for Duff, and Breathe In. often stings with bitterness, from the very Selena Gomez-like, re-pea-pea-pea-peat-heavy "Lies," to angsty rock-tinged wailer "Stay In Love," which plays like a grown-up update to the crunchier edges of Metamorphosis, to "Arms Around A Memory," a Matthew Koma-produced blend of dramatic electro-balladry and pulverizing beat drops that sees Hilary at her most haunting.
"You can't put your arms around a memory," Duff damningly declares, followed by a chilly coo. ("Oo-OOO!") Briefly, Hilary becomes the vengeful spirit of a Korean horror flick...who also happens to be at an EDM festival.
For the most part, Breathe In compliment's Duff sugary-sweet, if not limited vocal ability. (She might be known for many things, but being a powerhouse chanteuse is not one of them.) The whistlin' "Picture This," co-written with Oh Honey's Mitchell Collins, is the lone exception, as Duff stretches her voice beyond comfort to reach a chorus clearly not within her range on the grating, folk-y dud. ("Pi-i-cture this!" Yeesh.)
"Tattoo" is a vastly more fruitful collaboration for Duff, penned in a session with x crooner, Ed Sheeran. The emotional guitar-pop cut certainly has all the trademarks of a Sheeran smash, full of blood and tattoos and broken hearts — and, appropriately, melodies that burrow deep. "Apologies for the way I've been / I couldn't wash you off my skin," she softly laments. That rain that came down and awoke her dreams? Didn't wash everything away, after all.
She opts for radio-friendly hooks with the help of OneRepublic's Jerrod Bettis on "Brave Heart," but it's the album's striding title track, an atmospheric Koma-produced electro-break up anthem that sees Hilary settling in to reality (or at least faking it until she does), which lingers the longest. "I made a Top 10 list of all the things I miss / Your lying eyes and lips? They didn't make it." Now that would be a Buzzfeed list worth reading.
No one was under the illusion that The Return Of The Duff would tilt the world on its axis, but Breathe In supplies an array of unpretentious pop greatness to prove that Hilary can still hold her own nearly a decade later.
Despite the album's brokenhearted undercurrent, Breathe In. ends on a hopeful note with "Night Like This," a romantic sing-sung ditty about a chance meeting with an attractive stranger in a shared taxi ride downtown alongside Big Time Rush's Kendall Schmidt, which could easily double as a plot line for Season 2 of Younger.
"Our hands fit just the right way, our legs tangled up in this small space..."
The two sound sweet together, eagerly finishing each other's sentences as they explore the sexual tension in the backseat. And on an album largely about burying a part of Hilary's past, the thrill of possibility feels like a breath of fresh air.