It’s a brilliant pop record post “1989.”
Hilary Duff left music for nearly a decade, but the wait is over.
Many Disney youngsters face the seemingly inevitable metamorphosis from squeaky clean poster child to messy tabloid villain where their personal life overshadows all professional endeavors before spiraling into oblivion, or even worse, a VH1 reality show. Hilary Duff is the exception, successfully avoiding super stardom’s negative influence despite remaining a tabloid figure through her journey into adulthood. Since 2007’s “Dignity” record, Duff played minor roles on television and film, but nothing career-defining to secure her spot in Hollywood. Becoming a mother to her three-year-old son Luca took precedence over any professional venture, but also allowed Duff to take her time recording a formidable pop record with in-demand producers and writers like Bloodshy, Matthew Koma and Ed Sheeran.
Music sorely missed Duff’s neatly packaged persona not because there’s a shortage of solid pop tunes, but because our hearts forever have a place for her. There’s something to be said about her extended absence that makes this next installment extra special. Artists face immense pressure to continuously outshine themselves, but that forced acquisition often inspires a trend that either doesn’t fit or produces mediocrity. Eight years later, Duff puts forth her fifth studio record, “Breathe In. Breathe Out.,” filling a void we weren’t aware needed filling.
Kicking off the record is the Bloodshy-produced, Tove Lo penned pop banger for “Sparks,” a carefully crafted high energy ditty meant to jumpstart the stall after the lukewarm response from last year’s attempted comeback with “Chasing The Sun” and “All About You” (those land solely on the record’s Fanjoy package along with “Outlaw” and Dave Aude’s “Chasing The Sun” remix). Bloodshy of “Toxic” fame was the logical solution to breathe new life into the slipping musical career from Duff, utilizing an infectious mid-tempo quirk and catchy whistles to facilitate the comeback. It received an uncomfortable video treatment that featured more of Hilary Duff’s adventure into dating via Tinder than hair flips. It caught such backlash, a “Fan Demanded” version sans Tinder emerged several weeks later, and all was right again.
Immediately following the opening track are “My Kind” and “One In A Million,” precarious jams about the adventures of falling in love. Sonically, both songs are radio-ready and on par with the breezy tone of the record – an important aspect seen throughout the entirety of “Breathe In. Breathe Out.” and imperative for Duff if she wants commercial success (we assume signing with RCA last summer is indicative of that). She’ll need tidy tunes like the aforementioned to resonate with the general public, and thanks to the Tove Lo-assisted “One In A Million,” Duff is on her way.
Chucking “Confetti” in the fourth slot was a logical choice, marking the first throwaway track of the record thanks to its transparent message and weak construct (“If I fall you better catch me / you’re turning me into confetti”). There’s synths, pianos, techno beats and pitchy vocals, fine. But why the nod to Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth?” The entire production is warbly and confusing, so the tribute in the end makes no (yet complete) sense. Fortunately, the album title track swoops in immediately after and picks up where “One In A Million” left off.
The intro in “Breathe In. Breathe Out.” is resoundingly similar to Maroon 5’s “It Was Always You” but finds its own identity when the breathy vocals kick in. “It’s the title of a track on the album that I did with Matthew Koma, and it stuck with me,” she told EW last month. “Over the past few years of my life it’s just been something that really helped me—just taking a deep breath in and letting a deep breath out. It can be a good thing, it can be a struggle, it can be a power thing—it’s just a good reminder for everyone to remember to do that. It’s a relief.” The song is a breath of fresh air thanks to its dreamy production value and reflective chorus (“I made a top 10 list of all the things I missed / your lying eyes and lips… they didn’t make it”). If you weren’t aware by now, Duff’s stunning resurgence in music is evident in this Koma-penned beauty.
Duff’s first co-writing appearance lands on the catchy upswing tune for “Lies,” an impressive mid-tempo reminiscent of a “Dignity” record with its catchy chorus playing off a strategic stutter while an explosion of horns and inaudible speaking (“Stranger” vibes) can be heard throughout. The mood chills once Koma’s second contribution for “Arms Around A Memory” flickers on. It’s a transcendental power ballad mirroring the seriousness in “Confetti” with largely improved thematic imagery. The emphatic oohs and aaahs champion the song through its conclusion, but it’s undeniably one of the weaker tracks.
We’ve successfully journeyed into the second half of “Breathe.,” and thus far we’re pleasantly satisfied with the materialization of a beautifully crafted record. Sure, Duff isn’t an astounding singer, but that’s not required of a current pop crooner. Instead, she’s running with a cohesive catalogue and continues the experimentation with the energetic “Stay In Love” uptempo bop. It’s foundation sounds like something left on Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” cutting room floor, and we mean that with honest sincerity. She sings the chorus with the earnest intention she’s a seasoned veteran: “Stay in love / give me a reason / holding on just for the weekend.” And we’re a firm believer in the fake it till you make it mantra.
Unfortunately, we experience another lull with “Brave Heart.” Duff’s co-writing skills flatline in the screechy guitar strumming song about letting go of a lost love “even though [she’s] scared to death,” but overall it missed the mark. While the next song titled “Tattoo” is another soft spoken contribution, it’s a standout track thanks to singer Ed Sheeran’s exquisite experience in song writing. Perhaps Taylor Swift passed on this beauty for “1989,” but we’re grateful Duff snagged it. When she isn’t trying hard a la “Arms Around A Memory” or Duff’s co-written “Picture This” (yikes), she is proficient carrying her weight as a dynamic singer. “Tattoo” is not only prepped for commercial success (remember: RCA), but it’s an excellent segue during upcoming shows Duff will inevitably perform. “He vocally produced it and came in the booth with me,” Hilary told MTV last fall of the collaboration. “I was really intimidated because, normally, they don’t do that, so I kept looking up and being like, ‘You’re Ed Sheeran and I’m singing the song that you wrote and I want to do right by it.’ Happily, it all turned out well. It was awesome and then he, in like 15 minutes, did all the low stuff and the harmonies and the background.”
Duff could’ve easily relied on an album littered with big-name features to spread the good word she’s returned to the scene, but instead she chose to keep the focus almost entirely on her. She made an exception for her melty duet with Kendall Schmidt on another Duff-penned tune titled “Night Like This,” playfully volleying the spotlight before uniting on the chorus. Schmidt’s mild vocal never overshadows Duff on the feature, simply accentuating her sugary tone. We commend Duff for choosing a seasoned singer who similarly grew up in the spotlight with Big Time Rush yet ventured into adulthood seemingly normal as well.
Rounding out the record are another couple lively standout tracks strategically placed to leave a lasting impression. The closest resemblance Duff provides to the acoustic duds for “Chasing The Sun” and “All About You” (love both to be honest) is “Belong,” her folky-pop infusion celebrating Duff’s introduction as an innovator in 2015 when the “in” trend is reviving the ’80s. She follows the beat of her own drum in the Toby Gad-written hybrid. She sings, “When was the last time you did something for the first time? When was the first time you did something for the last time?” Following “Belong” is the outro, very anthemic Kara DioGuardi-assisted banger titled “Rebel Hearts.” We could easily point out the name’s likeness to Madonna’s latest studio album, but its intrinsic formula makes for a delicious tantrum of polished pop perfection due to the wacky organs and pulsating claps aiding the belting aahs. Quite a brilliant addition to close out the LP.
Hilary Duff successfully inserted herself back into music with “Breathe In. Breathe Out.” Her carefully planned rebound side-stepped the predictable trends artists like Carly Rae Jepsen and Jason Derulo followed, devising a phenomenal female pop record post the “1989” eclipse. Her attempts last year with the mostly acoustic vibe fizzled, forcing the 27-year-old to strategize a Plan B. Duff faces an uphill battle if she wants music lovers outside her core fanbase to take the record seriously, but with songs like “Tattoo,” “Breathe In. Breathe Out.” and “Rebel Hearts…” she stands a chance.
“Breathe In. Breathe Out.” hits U.S. iTunes June 16.