This week, more than a decade removed from the halcyon days of "So Yesterday" and Lizzie McGuire, Hilary Duff released Breathe In. Breathe Out, her first album in eight years. Let's get right to the point: this is a very good pop album, one that's smartly structured and ruthlessly catchy in places and imbued with real personality. And if the only scraps of Duff's work lingering in your memory are Radio Disney alt-pop bangers like "Why Not" and Laguna Beach anthem "Come Clean" — songs she was recording before she could drive — that statement might inspire some complicated feelings: surprise, disbelief, a little bit of cynicism. I'm here to help you work through those feelings, and to make it clear that Breathe In's high quality shouldn't be surprising in the least.
I'm here to help you work through your Hilary Duff feelings
Let's jump back almost a decade to 2007, a year dominated by "Umbrella," "Hey There Delilah," and "D.A.N.C.E." That's when Duff released Dignity, an album shaped by personal turmoil that marked a definitive step towards adulthood and away from spiky, saccharine teen-pop anthems. Writing with industry veteran Kara DioGuardi in the wake of a messy breakup, a turbulent stalking scandal, and her parents' divorce, Duff put together a collection of sharp, mechanically precise dance-pop cuts. The album sounds like Madonna circa "Vogue" and Depeche Mode in spots, with serrated riffs slicing through churning, pulsating club beats; it didn't really sound like anything else on the radio. And Duff managed to sound sultry — even menacing in spots — despite a voice that tends towards the thin and sweet, spinning tales about venomous home-wreckers, seductive older men, and fake friends who couldn't stop partying.
it proved difficult for Duff to completely shed her Disney baggage
Unfortunately, Dignity ended up selling worse than all of her other albums to date, an outcome that can be chalked up to both Disney fatigue and the standard competitiveness of the pop landscape. With High School Musical breaking records and popular TV shows like Hannah Montana on the air, the Disney star factory was bigger than ever in 2007, and it proved difficult for Duff to completely shed that baggage. Dignity was a relative commercial failure, but it was the first album that felt like hers. (And of course, it blazed a trail for future successful Disney breakouts: when Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez look back on their first mainstream hits, they know who to thank.) No matter its chart performance, there's a precedent for Duff making enjoyable, mature pop music.
When she decided to mount a musical comeback after years of focusing on marriage and motherhood, Duff made another series of smart choices. The list of collaborators on Breathe In is robust, and it's stocked full of pop mercenaries who can bang out perfect melodies in their sleep. Rising Swedish star Tove Lo, EDM vocalist for-hire Matthew Koma, industry fixtures like Christian "Bloodshy" Karlsson (of Bloodshy & Avant, the duo behind a handful of indelible Britney Spears hits) and Ilya Salmanzadeh: they're all present, and doing typically ruthless work. They're the forces that turn the album's opening third, from chirpy single "Sparks" to crystalline "Clarity" knockoff "Confetti," into an electro-pop tour de force.
When the album's launch was almost derailed by the fast flop of two advance singles last year, Duff revealed herself to be a patient and flexible musical architect. The anemic Colbie Caillat co-written "Chasing the Sun" and the stompy, self-consciously adult "All About You" were poised for inclusion on Breathe In, but after their tepid performance, Duff retooled and oriented the album around a set of clubbier, cooler cuts while retaining a set of folkier tracks in the album's back third. Treating failed buzz singles like the sunk costs they are takes guts, and plenty of artists have snuck them onto albums as bonus tracks with their tail between their legs. Duff cut bait and moved forward.
There's a maturity and character to Breathe In
There's a maturity and character to Breathe In that feels recognizably Duffian; the album is aligned with the persona she's forged while growing up in public, that of a genial, down-to-earth starlet who makes up for a lack of mindblowing talent with charm and hard work. Duff is a mother and a divorcée fighting for her career's health, and those experiences shape the writing accordingly: as a breakup album alone, Breathe In is solid, whether Duff is processing post-marriage pain or starting to look for new love. (The love-drunk head rush of "Confetti" is a more compelling document of singlehood than any cheesy Tinder tie-in, that's for sure.) There's nothing vague about an opening set of lines like "I remember what I wore on our first date / I remember how you felt against my face / I remember all the songs we used to hate," and I appreciate that Swiftian level of detail.
There are certain things Duff was never going to accomplish, and the thought of expecting them from her feels unfair. She's not exactly a powerhouse behind the microphone, stuck working with a narrow range and no real richness or body to her voice. She's not a great innovative force, either; we can't expect her to bend the pop landscape to her will with her vision and fortitude. But she's a likable presence, she has a good handle on her strengths and weaknesses, and she knows which experts to call to help bring her ideas to life. If you're absolutely shocked by the quality of Breathe In. Breathe Out, you need to pay more attention.