Since indie-pop icon Juliana Hatfield is not in the habit of releasing the same album twice, it's only natural she'd follow up her weakest album with what may prove to be her very best.
Sometimes it’s impossible to figure out exactly how Juliana Hatfield wants us to feel about her. Are we supposed to celebrate her as an artist who kept her head above water by striking out as an independent when her star began to fade at the end of the '90s? Or do we show her sympathy for the very same reason? Like many of her Alternative Nation-era peers, Hatfield got burned by the game and vowed never to play it again. She founded Ye Olde Records in 2005 and has been quietly releasing music on her own schedule ever since. Despite the fact that she’s her own boss, she often seems less than pleased about her role in history. If she thinks she should be more famous than she is, she’ll never admit it, instead choosing to appear vaguely dissatisfied with her career. For someone who claims to be as famous as she wants to be, Hatfield sure throws up a lot of “maybe I wasn’t meant to be a musician” defenses. She did name her autobiography When I Grow Up, after all.
The early '90s may have been Hatfield’s heyday popularity-wise, but they were by no means the years when she did her best work. Her vulnerable backing vocals infused the Lemonheads’ pop nugget It’s a Shame About Ray with pathos and genuine sexual tension yet she never came up with anything as timeless as that album on her own. Those who stuck by Hatfield through the aughts will be quick to tell you that our girl hasn’t exactly been spinning her wheels. While her fellow graduates from the class of ’93 have been content relive past glories, Hatfield has matured into a distinguished, risk-taking songwriter who continues to surprise and occasionally confound listeners. After hitting a later-career high with the polished break-up album How to Walk Away, Hatfield stumbled with the insular, low-res Peace and Love, far and away the most uninspiring entry in her catalogue. Since Hatfield is not in the habit of releasing the same album twice, it’s only natural that she’d want to follow up her weakest album with what might prove to be her very best.
According to a press release, There’s Always Another Girl, Hatfield’s fan-funded (via pledgemusic.com) 12th LP is an album “…based loosely around the concept of failure”. If that’s the case, failure never sounded so imminently hummable. Sure, we meet plenty of directionless kids, burned-out musicians and drugged-up celebrities over the course of this album, but Hatfield is here to shake them out of their doldrums, not commiserate with them. Sometimes there’s no better medicine than a little optimism and a wealth of catchy choruses.
Backed by Boston stalwarts Ed Valauskas (bass) and Pete Caldes (drums), Hatfield has crafted an album full of resplendent power pop and gently swaggering alt-country. Initially, it feels like we might be in for some uneasy listening. On the dour, piano-tinged opener “Change the World,” a defeated Hatfield sings, “I was gonna change the world / But I’m not gonna change the world”. The barreling “Taxicab” quickly follows and brings the album to its feet, where it’ll remain for the majority of its running time. At 14 songs, the album is overlong (really no need for two versions of “Candy Wrappers”) yet there’s very little filler. Almost every track here, from the soaring classic rock of “Someone Else’s Problem” to the playful throwaway “Sex and Drugs”, benefits from Hatfield’s exacting melodies and expressive yet unvarnished guitar playing. Much like the late Elliott Smith, Hatfield gets endless mileage out of what on the surface seems like a limited vocal range, providing patient countrified songs like “Vagabonds” and “Stray Kids” with enormous, harmony-soaked choruses.
Never one to fear embarrassment, Hatfield has always specialized in open-wound, confessional storytelling. She talks about being uncomfortable in her own skin (again) on the Stonesy “Don’t Wanna Dance” and calls out a cheating lover on the caustic “Batteries”. She has less success telling other people’s stories. The melodramatic title track was penned in defense of Lindsay Lohan, whom Hatfield found rather captivating in the film I Know Who Killed Me. According to Hatfield, we “love it when a beautiful woman self-destructs” (actually, we love it when anyone self-destructs). This is the sort of subject matter that fellow Boston native Aimee Mann could make an entire concept album out of but Hatfield just can’t sell it. A weak chorus of “You want her, you want her, you want her, really want her / You’re hot and you’re thirsty and you’re in the desert and she’s like water,” doesn’t help either.
Although it’s a far superior album than anyone could reasonably expect from Hatfield 25 years into her career, Girl isn’t likely to make much of an impression outside of the devoted fan base that covered its recording costs. Hatfield, for maybe the first time ever, seems content. On the fearlessly optimistic closing track “Thousands of Guitars”, Hatfield consoles a poverty-stricken troubadour, reminding him,“Your ’69 SG was never a necessity / the Beatles and Stones and Raspberries / will always be there to remind you of what will always be”. And we’ll have There’s Always Another Girl to remind us that we should pay more attention to Juliana Hatfield.