A lot has changed in the last seven years for pop superstar Hilary Duff. After achieving global success with numerous albums and a greatest hits offering (not bad for the then 20 year old), she stepped out of the spotlight. Sporadic TV slots were filmed, but she took the time to become the woman we meet today; a 27 year-old single mother of one, exploring a creative, new direction in the world. Her new album Breathe In, Breathe Out dropped on June 17, and as an old-school fan since her Disney days, I can assure you it is all that we hoped it would be. A far cry from the days of “So Yesterday,” yet embracing the poppy hooks that made her songs the anthems of our teen years, Breathe In, Breathe Out embraces a new season in the singer’s life, while recognizing the pain of the past.
The lead single “Sparks” is quintessentially bubble gum pop. The dance-infused beat will get you moving, and we meet a singer who is boldly stepping into new territory. The lyrics are evocative and sultry, and it invites you into a crazy world perfect for Tinder dating (as Hilary showcases in the accompanying music video), or a night on the dance floor. The vibe of this track carries a lightness to balance out some of the raw themes found throughout the album, and this makes it an ideal opener and a perfect bridge between both her old and new tunes.
“My Kind,” opens with a deep base and back beat that allows the song to build to a catchy chorus. Simple in chord progression, the synth in the background leaves room for Duff to deliver the lyrics about meeting someone new. There’s some clever phrases in this song such as ‘strobe lights on your body,’ allowing you to visualize the scene, while the chorus focuses on a reflection of the singer’s satisfaction of a night with a lover. There are elements within this that are concerning, simply due to the aggressive tones of phrases like “For you are the perfect target, And I know when the sun comes out, I’m off,” and in these we see a more adult Duff who is willing to explore herself sexually.
The dance beats keep coming with “One In A Million,” and reverb adds to a pop-infused melody in an anthem that asserts the worth of Duff in a broken relationship. In what is potentially one of her most honest songs to date, she challenges the actions of an ex as she says, “You’re going down without me, wish that you had someone like me,” and her vocals and the beat rises to assert the independence of the singer now she is free of the constraints of the relationship.
The intensity continues with “Confetti,” and keys and dance beats work together to create a song that will remind you of Owl City. The artistry of Duff as she tells the story of falling in love is highlighted within the light and shade of the tones, and the juxtaposition of the joy in this whirlwind romance mixed with the fear in the lyrics creates a strong track that pays homage to “Heaven is a Place on Earth” in the tag.
“Breathe In, Breathe Out,” will immediately take you aback for the sheer intensity of the lyrics. The beat and lyrics come thick and fast as she says, “I remember what I wore on our first date…no more rain or shine, I guess this is it.” The brokenness depicted with the echo of her voice and her range is raw and beautiful, and the utter sadness of a love now lost is paralleled with a chorus that states she’s “gonna fake it.” In this, the music is stripped back as she repeats “breathe in, breathe out,” and we learn that the theme of this release is Hilary’s courage to face each new moment as it comes, stepping beyond the hurt of the past and hoping for the beauty of something new.
There is a foreboding tone to “Lies,” and an echo opens the track in what is an acoustic driven tune. Simple in lyrics (the majority of the chorus is the repetition of the words “I’m done with your lies”), it is upbeat and empowering, and a sense of resolve is weaved throughout the track. Bringing in brass, we are again given a tune that balances despair with happiness and determination, and that’s what makes Breathe In, Breathe Out something quite special.
“Arms Around A Memory,” uses a dance beat to give strength to dark tune that communicates the allure of living in the past. A soaring chorus is filled with synth based instrumentation to depict that haunting memories of the past, and this strips back in the verses to highlight the danger of dwelling on a past relationship. Deeper in tone, “Stay In Love,” adds another dimension to the pop-based album. The verses are rich in percussion, enforcing the gravity of the lyrics as she pleads with her lover to give her a reason to stay in a relationship that is falling apart.
There is a lightness to “Brave Heart,” and it takes an instrumental approach in the melody as opposed to the zealous use of synth in previous tracks. Still upbeat and poppy, the pain in Duff’s delivery of the chorus as she says, “Got to let go even though I’m scared to death…I’ve got a brave heart,” shows a maturity we haven’t always seen in her previous work. This is a highlight on the album as when the synth is taken away, it gives room for the clarity of Hilary’s story to be emphasized, and this balances out the tension between happiness and despair throughout the CD.
“Tattoo” is a beautiful, acoustic tune that is ready to take over radio. The maturity of Duff’s voice can be heard as she explores the light and shade within in. The poetry of the lyrics, layering of the vocals and light beat clearly point to the fact she worked on this track with Ed Sheeran, and the style compliments her new sound immensely. I’d love to hear this as a duet between the two, and if Hilary were to take this direction with her music she’d definitely be on to a winner.
Whistling seems to be all the rage these days, and it opens “Picture This,” before the intensity of a back beat is added. Hopeful in tone and touching again on the evocative tone as she says, “As we lay in the sheets,” we see Duff opening up her heart and mind to new adventures in love. There is a near Mumford and Sons vibe with the collaboration of the snare and folky whistling, and this gives the album a boost as it heads toward close.
Singing with Kendall Schmidt of Heffron Drive and Big Time Rush, “Night Like This,” is a cool tune that balances the lightness of Duff’s vocals with the depth of Schmidt’s. Nearly acting as a conversation between the two, you can envision the story of two strangers meeting. The anticipation of such a moment relies on a bass riff that adds a touch of mystery to the track making it a welcome addition to the album.
Maintaining the acoustic tones of her later tracks, “Belong” is a fun tune that uses keys and sing-a-long vocals to shine a light on the importance of living in the moment. Saying, “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” there is a spontaneity that makes this all the more meaningful.
Closing with “Rebel Hearts,” the eclectic sound of a harmonica opens the track before it goes into bass driven pop tones. Returning with insatiable dance beats, the chorus is a celebration of new life as Duff says “The only fun is following our dreams, Rules are only for the dead asleep.” Seeming to sum up the theme of the album and ending on a hopeful note, it shows us a singer who is resolute in overcoming the pain of heart break by returning to her deepest sense of self that was once lost.
Evocative and dance worthy, raw and honest; Hilary Duff’s new album is a brave retelling of some of the darkest moments of her life in the last seven years. Always mixing the dark with the light, she leans on the pop perfection she is best known for, while venturing into new territory that leaves space for a new sound in the future. This is not the Hilary Duff we knew 7 years ago; it is rather a beautiful and bold tribute to her future, and that is what makes it such a solid album.