Just to get this right out of the way from the start, one of my true “rock star” moments was when, for a few months, I sat next to Juliana Hatfield’s mother Julie at work, and she’d get calls from Juliana from time to time. I thought that was just, like, sooo cool.
Alright, that’s out of my system.
Juliana Hatfield has long been an artist that divides opinion amongst groups of people in ways that one might not expect. I’ve long been a casual fan, and have known many people who either hated or loved her, with few in-between. A friend once remarked she’d like to see her thrown from a bridge; John Faye has commented that he loves Hatfield, but that her CDs annoy his band members in the tour van. And strangely, Hatfield fans seem to be predominantly male (this is not unheard of for a female artist, but it is still somewhat uncommon). Maybe it’s just something about Juliana-the take-no-shit, tough girl-who-still-has-a-cute-pouty-face attitude, but she—and her music—are hard to ignore.
Whatever the cause for this divisiveness (my guess is Juliana’s helium-high voice), Hatfield has produced a pretty good body of work across a fairly long career, and a good deal of the high points are collected on Gold Stars.
But to call Gold Stars a “greatest hits” collection isn’t really accurate. For one, Hatfield didn’t have that many hits, and while they are here, Gold Stars attempts to serve as a balanced retrospective of Hatfield’s entire career, from her first steps away from the Blake Babies onto current material recorded after her most recent albums, 2000’s simultaneously-released Beautiful Creature and Juliana’s Pony: Total System Failure. She also includes a wealth of unreleased material, making this of interest to any serious fan or collector.
What keeps Gold Stars from being a truly comprehensive collection is the absence of material from Hatfield’s earlier work: Her fantastic debut Hey Babe is represented only by the jangle-pop gem “Everybody Loves Me But You”, the two big hits from her hit album Become What You Are are the only songs from that disc that are included, and Only Everything is also represented by only two cuts. That means that the commercially successful part of Hatfield’s career is dispensed with by track five, moving us into her later material and the rarities quickly. This may be a boon to fans—after all, they know her post-1996 work is as good as anything she did before—but to the typical “Greatest Hits” consumer, it may not include enough of the Hatfield they know. But then again, maybe it will: all of the songs that a casual fan is likely to know (save minor singles like “What a Life” or “Feelin’ Massachusetts”, which are not here) are included, so they might like that there isn’t any filler.
If the shortcomings of Gold Stars come from the dearth of earlier material, then the strengths come in the wealth of other material. Hatfield, like many of our treasured rock stars of late, had some record industry problems in the late ‘90s. Mainly she made an album called God’s Foot that Atlantic wouldn’t release. The fight over that album also coincided roughly with Hatfield’s commercial downfall, and her troubles with Atlantic are probably at least part of the reason why so little material from that era is included here. The combination of factors undoubtedly left her more than a bit jaded and frustrated, as she went on to release solid but largely ignored albums like Bed and Beautiful Creature. But with Gold Stars, we get to see a greatest hits album of Hatfield’s career as she would’ve wanted it, even if it’s not the way things played out. That means that two songs from God’s Foot—“Mountains of Love” and “Fade Away”—appear here in their proper place chronologically, as if there were no record company battles, as if the album and songs were released as originally intended. There’s something redeeming about that.
The rarities continue to roll at the end of the album; beginning with two covers (The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart). Surprisingly, Hatfield sings “Every Breath You Take”—which is not an easy song to cover—with even more desperation than Sting did on the original. It may be a bit jarring at first (the first few bars sound just like the Police version with a lot more feedback) but as it continues the song reveals itself to possess some of the raw intensity in the song that was missing on the Police’s glossy original. The other new tracks-especially the haunting, sad closer “Table For One”—sit comfortably next to the A-sides, meaning that even if they weren’t “hits”, they don’t disrupt the flow here.
There are two ways to look at Gold Stars, then. The first is as a stilted “greatest hits” compilation that includes only a small amount of major label material because of bitter record company battles, and is filled in with fine but unrecognizable later-period material and rarities. The second way to view it is as the attempt to offer a balanced retrospective of a long and fruitful career, while including a handful of new material and sequencing/compiling the album as if the bitter battles and commercial success had never happened. Both of these assessments would be spot-on, though for most the truth lies someplace in-between: yes, Gold Stars is missing some critical material, particularly from Hey Babe. But Gold Stars is also excellently compiled and paced and mines many of the best moments from Hatfield’s career-even if we didn’t know many of them before.