by Rick Rockwell
The critical take on Juliana Hatfield, courtesy of the east coast taste makers: peaked too early; how sad; now seems like a tired ‘90s memory flailing (and failing) at pop music.
But isn’t an alternative storyline possible?
How about one-time sensation matures and finds a wider audience on her own terms?
The truth is Hatfield was making indie rock hits when the term “indie” was just breaking into the mainstream in the early 1990s. Her song “My Sister” which both rocked and touched heartstrings broke her on to FM radio (this critic enjoyed her music on both KROQ in Los Angeles and WXRT in Chicago). But these days, her music is gone from the radio, even though, in her early 40’s now, she may just be hitting her stride.
Part of that maturity is knowing how and when to walk away. Hatfield is all about setting her own terms of engagement now. Although her new album How to Walk Away barely touches it, the singer/guitarist has battled depression. This is a topic she will take-on directly in her book When I Grow Up: A Memoir, due out next month. Hatfield admits some of her crash from indie rock stardom was due to depression, and the cover-up of her mental condition, which just made her feel worse. That depression wrecked the recording sessions for a never fully completed album for Atlantic Records in the 1990s, which released some of the tracks subsequently on collections. These days, after she wrangled her release from Atlantic, Hatfield has her own record firm (Frank Black of the Pixies is one of the artists on her Ye Olde Records label). Although she’s no longer the flavor of the moment like in the mid-1990s when she had a major label behind her, she’s taking on the demands of her career and measuring the costs.
On her tenth solo LP*, the topic of depression is dealt with in a glancing way with one exception. On “So Alone” Hatfield debates how to deal with loneliness, and thoughts of suicide. The song “Such a Beautiful Girl” (which features singer-guitarist-rock critic Matthew Caws on backing vocals) also seems like a chapter from Hatfield’s forthcoming book, singing as she does about a young songwriter in the third person: “They want to knock that smile off her face / So she shuts her door and writes some dreams / It’s her favorite escape.”
However, the centerpiece of How to Walk Away is a song cycle, which revolves around a relationship. The entire arc is there: “Not Enough” (expectations); “Remember November” (electrified moments at the start); “This Lonely Love” (long-distance love); “Law of Nature” (infatuation); “My Baby…” (the thrill is gone); “Shining On” (flashbacks of better times); “The Fact Remains” (break-up); and “Now I’m Gone” (good-bye, good riddance). Like the recent release from Carrie Rodriguez, it seems Hatfield needs to exorcise demons left after ending a very wrenching affair.
Hatfield’s duet with Richard Butler (The Psychedelic Furs and Love Spit Love) “This Lonely Love” is the song getting the most attention on iTunes. That song is filled with lush string arrangements and longing lyrics that just scream pop hit. But it is far from the best on the new album.
Although there are no straight-out rockers on this album (like “Stay Awake” from 2005’s Made in China), which is a disappointment (some critics don’t seem to appreciate Hatfield’s rockin’ side and only laud her acoustic work), the few numbers where Hatfield stokes up a slow burn on more electrified arrangements are the best pieces here. One of those, “Just Lust” is a slightly tongue-in-cheek explanation for a 3 a.m. liaison. The best number on the album, “Now I’m Gone” has a great hook and a boozy, Stones-like vibe, perfect for a closer at a roadhouse bar. Guitarist Jody Porter of the Fountains of Wayne gets the credit for trading guitar licks with Hatfield on some of these punchier songs.
Of the 11 songs on How to Walk Away, most are finely crafted. Not every piece is perfect though. Despite the guitar pyrotechnics “Not Enough” is a bit trite (this song is only available on the iTunes release). “Remember November” is over-sentimental.
The good news though is that Juliana Hatfield is writing the next chapters of her musical career on her own terms. And that’s a success story, no matter how you spell it.
*Those ten records include one live collection, but not her greatest hits compilation on Atlantic, nor a number of EPs.
(The photo shows Juliana Hatfield performing at Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ in 2005; the photo is by Rob DiCaterino of New York City, via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. Juliana Hatfield will perform songs from How to Walk Away on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Monday, Aug. 25. She kicks off her international tour with an appearance at IOTA in Arlington, VA on Sept. 9. To see her video for "This Lonely Love," please check below.)
How to Walk Away
This Lonely Love
When I Grow Up
When I Grow Up: A Memoir
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by Rick Rockwell