The first Juliana Hatfield Three album in over 21 years suggests a timelessness, a pop sensibility that forgets scene in favor of hitting you with pure hooks in the here and now.
It's been over 21 years since the last album from the Juliana Hatfield Three. 1993's Become What You Are was released on Atlantic, bolstered by radio hits "My Sister" and "Spin the Bottle". The success of those songs, and of the release of that album on a major label, reflect the relationship alternative rock had with the industry and the radio at the time. That post-Nevermind world allowed for exposure to alt-rock lifers like Hatfield -- who also played in Blake Babies and the Lemonheads -- and the Juliana Hatfield Three made the most of that moment with an infectious album, and singles that got both serious airtime and alternative credibility.
Since, Hatfield has remained an active and prolific voice, cranking out albums for both major and indie labels. The return to the original Juliana Hatfield Three line-up, which sees bassists Dean Fisher and drummer Todd Philips returning to the fold, is as welcome as it is unceremonious. Hatfield's recent work, especially 2011's There's Always Another Girl, has hearkened back to her earlier work, albeit in a more spare fashion, without just borrowing from the past. With Whatever, My Love, Hatfield and company delve headfirst back into the power-pop of Become What You Are and 1995's Only Everything. But as the album gets the band back together, it suggests not a throwback to some purer, more flannel-clad alt-rock halcyon day. Instead, it suggests a timelessness in Hatfield's sound, a sort of pop sensibility that transcends scene in favor of hitting you with pure, time-tested hooks in song after song.
The album is as capable of gliding as it is of scuffing things up. "Invisible", the album's opener, sways on acoustic strums, doubled-up vocals, and the subtle swell of keyboards that fill up the space around the heartworn chorus. "Now That I Have Found You" turns the formula on its ear, with tightwire guitar lines and faintly distorting chords adding a dingy quality to the bright sweetness of the melody. Meanwhile, "If Only We Were Dogs" is a full-on rocker, pitting heavy keyboards up against buzzing guitars, a blistering solo, and propulsive rhythms. Later in the record, songs like "If I Could" and the spacious acoustic number "I Don't Know What to Do With My Hands" return to a pop sheen, one that contrasts nicely with the pop-punk blast of "Dog on a Chain" or "Push Pin", the latter of which is shadowed by the moody grind of "Blame It On the Stylist".
The trio shifts styles and textures well, but the overall approach feels pretty basic. These are rock-pop songs to the core, happy to let the trio sound like a trio, one that executes the songs tightly without too much extra crunch or theatrics. Even the keyboard-guitar tandem fade-out of closer "Parking Lots" feels more intimate than epic, despite the lush layers of what might be the best chorus on the record. This basic approach reflects some central themes from the record. Whatever, My Love spends a lot of time talking about simplicity. "Ordinary Guy" is about just that, someone who isn't a tortured artist, someone who "says what he means". Meanwhile, "If Only We Were Dogs" considers a simpler existence as, yes, a dog, where one could do something honest like "run right up and jump all over you". "If I Could", a song Hatfield first wrote in the '90s, is a plea to save a troubled friend. "If I could I would make all your pain go away", she claims, plainly, imagining a world where fixes were that easy. "Wood" is a song about wanting to be left alone, not wanting to be touched even by someone who loves you. But the song pines for being able to weather that storm -- get through the numbness -- without hurting the other person's feelings, without making something complicated enough more complicated.
Whatever, My Love, despite its plainspoken lyrics and shrugging title, doesn't ignore the complicated in favor of these simple pleasures. In fact, in acknowledging the darkness on "Push Pin" or "If I Could" or "Wood", the Juliana Hatfield Three argues that simple pleasures might be the hardest to come by and the hardest one. That is the central tension of the record, and one that keeps things taut even when "Invisible" runs through the chorus a few too many times or when songs like "Now That I Have Found You" bury the best elements -- the jagged guitar phrasings -- under other, sleeker production. The songs are tight and well produced enough that you might find yourself, at moments, wanting them to loosen up a bit. But often the elements clash or meld in just the right way, selling the ideal clearly and honestly by giving us just a hint of the shadows and complications holding them up. As the sound draws lines back to other Juliana Hatfield records, it would be easy to say this record calls to mind a previous era in music, but really these songs are timeless in that they are all about the moment, all about hitting you and hooking you in right now. Long after the bottles have spun, long after we've become what we are, but before we become what we will be next, there are these sweet tunes to dig into in the here and now.