For those of us who came of age in the era of Slap Bracelets, Crystal Pepsi, and Pogs, the ’90s are a bit of a sacred cow. One of the current indie generation’s defining aspects is its penchant for nostalgia — and it serves as a kind of revisionist history that in retrospect we have painted the alternative era as this golden age of MTV video blocks and Dickies flannel jackets, while carefully omitting home truths about the period’s less pleasant memories (the Oklahoma City bombing, the OJ Simpson murders).
In our age of Auto-Tuned pop starlets, bling, and MTV forgetting music altogether, the nineties provide a comfortable safe haven to retreat towards, one of those rare spaces of years where the popular music on the radio was also the artistically important music. Sentimentalists from the ’60s talk about where they were at the time of various assassinations. The closest to those dark recollections our generation gets may be recollections of the Cobain suicide. The ’90s are as important to a generation of 20somethings disillusioned by the Iraq War and American Idol as the ’50s are to our nation’s elderly, or the ’60s to the Boomer crowd. A time of innocence, a time of confidences.
As a token of the ’90s nostalgia and fond reminiscence, Juliana Hatfield is an easy choice. Who doesn’t remember hanging out in the neighbor kids’ rec room with some Doritos watching her wail about hating her bitch sister on The Jon Stewart Show? But as a strange time traveler from 1993 still rudely permeating our record shelves, she now seems almost insulting. The rock heroes of our halcyon grunge days were supposed to die tragically or fade away. Instead, Hatfield has done the unthinkable, continuing to quietly put out records that few have noticed, as if expecting some anachronistic career revival.
Well, break out the Skip-It, because Peace & Love is Hatfield’s most ’90s-throwback-sounding disc yet, ironically dressed in the “maturity” of acoustic folk-songs. Hatfield wants desperately to give the impression that she’s “too adult” for fuzzed-out rockers now, but the lyrics belie a different truth, of a Hatfield saying the same things she did in 1993, just with a softer backing track to appeal to the yuppies that were once Generation X. Dad can now feel safe rocking out to this in the minivan on the way to a PTA meeting, and recall bong hits of college past without actually having to revisit them.
The other major difference here is that it’s all Hatfield, all the time. Every instrument played here is by her hand. That doesn’t do much for artistic maturity, however. Hatfield, now 42, still pouts and simpers like the quirky, willowy ’90s songstress she was 20 years ago. But she’s not any longer, and the impression one gets is the kind of cringing embarrassment you feel when your mom rocks out to some hip young tune on the radio while driving your friends to Cub Scouts. You wince because if there’s one thing worse than your parents being desperately uncool, it’s when your parents try to be cool. It violates the social order; parents are supposed to be square, and when they try to be otherwise it’s like a first-year ESL student narrating Shakespeare.
So, the album is uncool, there’s that, and still too ’90s to be anything different than what came before, anything less than dated. We open, however, with a much different ’90s touchstone, one that you could call a sort of afterbirth of the alternative era. “Peace & Love”, with its double-tracked vocals and gentle acoustic pickings, recalls Lilith Fair alumni like Shawn Colvin and Paula Cole, and that ain’t a good thing. The rather cliché naivety of the chorus doesn’t help much, either. “I won’t give up on peace and love, don’t give up on peace and love.” Thanks, Juliana. I’m happy for you in your dedication, and I don’t plan on giving up on peace and love anytime soon. But do you think perhaps you had anything else to say that might seem, oh, a little deeper on the subject? No? Okay then. “I want us all to be happy”, she concludes. A pretty simple wish. A pretty upbeat sort of yearning for basic human contentment. A pretty dull-tastic lyric.
Track two, “The End of the War”, doesn’t improve much on this template. The song comes across a little more upbeat and Elliott Smith-like (it’s not often those two adjectives share the same plate), but still full of lyrical clunk like “The cowards lie in the tall grass” (rather than “standing in the tall grass”, Cowboy Dan?). And so it goes from there, some lovely singing and acoustic melodies, some absolutely knockout gorgeous harmonies, but little variation on the primary colors of Hatfield’s lyrical themes. “I feel like I’m broken, I know you feel the same, we’re both pretty damaged, fragile and afraid, why can’t we love each other?” These sorts of lyrics make us reach the conclusion that Hatfield’s fourth-grade adolescent poetry once meant so much to us because, well, we were in fourth grade. Neverland isn’t quite so appealing in the context of Recession Wasteland 2010, and such simplistic, childlike sentiments simply don’t apply when we’re all struggling to pay our utility bills, or eating mustard with spoons. “I Picked You Up” even manages the most unforgivable sin of all, which is sounding like Sheryl Crow. No one, not even Sheryl Crow, should ever, ever sound like Sheryl Crow.
But despite all this, the absolute, essential problem of this disc is that the “I, me, we” themed lyrics create no sort of universal focus that may have rescued Hatfield’s work here from Gen X throwback tedium. There’s opportunities aplenty to include us in her admittedly affecting, mournful nostalgia, in her mourning for the lost era of her golden age. Instead she shuts us out and hunkers down into a well of emo self-pity, and frankly its been done by better (again I consider invoking the ghost of Elliott Smith here). We never looked to Juliana Hatfield for poetry, we looked to her for angst, for smart-girl guitar heroics and fuzzed-out noise. Ms. Hatfield, please put down the acoustic and step away. Have a Crystal Pepsi, put on a Slap Bracelet, and turn up those goddamn amps.