When the book is finally written, you’d figure there wouldn’t be much to say about Juliana Hatfield. Except the book was written, by Hatfield herself– a memoir, called When I Grow Up– and she has plenty to say. Factor in the detailed and thorough dissections of her songs Hatfield’s been posting on her website under the heading “An Arm and a Leg” and you might be convinced she (both with the Blake Babies and solo) is every bit as important as Boston scene peers, pioneers, and predecessors Mission of Burma, Galaxie 500 and the Pixies, let alone welterweights the Lemonheads.
Don’t be. Hatfield has released some fine music but really little more than that. Yet for a couple of years there, she loomed larger than some might have predicted, certainly given the modest impact of the Blake Babies. Hatfield’s gift has always been an ability to connect with the seemingly disconnected, the losers, loners, and dreamers that never had a scene of their own. That these disparate souls eventually coalesced under the alt-rock umbrella was of course out of Hatfield’s control, but for a moment there she did suddenly seem in tune with the rest of the world.
That was then, and this is now, and once again Hatfield has been relegated to the sidelines. The difference is that now she seems comfortable and at ease with her place, successful enough to make a living but not so much fame as to be a distraction, and that left-of-center poise has ported over to her latest disc, How to Walk Away. Produced by Ivy’s Andy Chase, it’s a defiantly adult record, never pretending to be something it’s not and often deceptively tougher than its jangle-pop exterior lets on.
Hatfield’s called this album very autobiographical, and in so far as she can be trusted, the singer’s obviously been burned and has forgone the balm in favor of pain. Admittedly, Hatfield’s naïf act was always a little disingenuous. Here she comes across honestly wounded and resentful. In “The Fact Remains”, lies flood a home like levees breaking. In “This Lonely Love”, she approaches the final chorus with the ghostly whisper of “I’m alone.” In “Shining On”, Hatfield tries to forget “all the mistakes, disasters and words that should never have been spoken.”
Still, she doesn’t try too hard. Lies, loneliness, and recrimination are the name of this How to Walk Away game. “He used to look in my eyes and talk to me, but now we just have sex and watch TV,” she recalls in “My Baby…”, and if there were still any question how “he” has left Hatfield feeling, there are nasty couplets like the “Law of Nature” simile “Flies are feeding on someone’s blood/ Isn’t it kind of just like love?” or the backhanded, backtracking diss in “Just Lust” of “I never said I can’t live without you, baby/ I just said you look good tonight.”
That sharp words like these are generally paired with bright melodies and strummy guitars may be one of pop’s oldest tricks, but Hatfield applies it well (certainly better than she applies a cameo from the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler on “This Lonely Love”). Yet if Hatfield is as hurt as she seems, if she’s in pain, it would have been a welcome change had she, even once, let some of that lingering anger out in the music as well as the lyrics. While it obviously takes someone strong to keep their cool and composure despite all evidence to the contrary, even the most pointed songs here, like “Now I’m Gone” or “So Alone”, betray little of Hatfield’s punkier roots, mostly sticking closely instead to safe singer-songwriter territory (think: Suzanne Vega or fellow Boston scene vet Aimee Mann). Songs this bitter demand catharsis, but nestled in its pop cocoon, that side of Hatfield’s story instead gets stifled by the soft bomb approach when what you really want is for the singer, once and for all, to explode in rage and break something.
How to Walk Away
Ye Olde; 2008
September 24, 2008