If the pandemic has taught musicians anything, it’s how to use a computer. With all manner of social distancing rules and regulations in place, no longer can they call up a bunch of able musicians, pick a rehearsal spot and slug it out in a room. In 2021, scores of musicians have retreated to their back bedrooms with just a guitar, a laptop, and a box-fresh recording interface. Sometimes this straightforward approach works well. Sadly for Juliana Hatfield, it seems that the process has overshadowed the product.
Blood is Juliana’s 19th solo studio album and follows 2019’s Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police. The second of two “tribute” albums (the other one being the excellent Sings Olivia Newton-John from 2018), Sings the Police should have been a bit of a frivolous blowout before she settled down to making a new album of original material. Instead, it seems to have severely traumatized Ms. Hatfield, as the lyrical content of much of Blood would give Slipknot a run for their money in the “ewww!” stakes. The cover nails her colors to the mast from the outset – it’s a nicely rendered image of a woman in a bathing suit, diving through the air. How lovely. Except she’s severed both arms at the elbow and is hemorrhaging blood as she makes her graceful arc into God know what. It’s quite a statement.
Working in isolation, with occasional support from her new collaborator Jed Davis, Hatfield has got in touch with her dark side – lyrically at least. Often, toe-curling lyrics are grafted onto sunshine pop songs. Sometimes, it works well. However, more often than not, it doesn’t. The album opens almost promisingly – “The Shame of Love” rocks along nicely for the most part; a great chorus and some sterling guitar and bass work make for a strong composition. Unfortunately, It’s undermined by some rather unwelcome computerized glitches, which, if they’d have been used once or twice, would have been cute in an ’80s retro way. Sadly, the tune ends up relying on this rather annoying, stuttering guitar chord that gets in the way of the power of the song—a great shame.
Fans of vintage keyboard sounds will love Blood. Mellotrons and electric pianos are on almost every tune, alternately adding interesting textures to the material or adding a weird counterpoint to the lyrical darkness. “Gorgon” is based on the simplest of electric piano foundations and works really well. If the coda had been truncated, it would have given the song more impact, but it’s still one of the record’s highlights. “Mouthful of Blood” has the most Mellotron you’ll hear outside of a Moody Blues album and is all the better for it. The cheesy drum box sample in the middle eight is a neat touch, too. On the subject of arcane keyboards, “Dead Weight” floats a cute squelchy synth line over a rather tired-sounding tune and almost saves it. Almost. “All I ever wanted was to revel in the loneliness / find a private place to sit and tear off my skin in peace” must be the most emo lyric ever written.
Working (almost) alone in the cozy confines of her home, Hatfield seems to have spent way more time working out how to use the software than she did writing the material. Songs like “I Had a Dream” and “Splinter” drift by and hardly leave an impression. If the listener does look up from scrolling on their phone, it’ll be because of a jagged lyric, like “Shove a tube sock in your mouth / To stop the sound from coming out” from “Chunks” or “When a door closes / We just open a vein” from “Suck It Up”.
Everything quickly settles back down to the ordinary. Hatfield does manage to finish Blood on a high. “Torture” is built on the most rudimentary of drum box beats and almost sounds like a demo. The song, however, is excellent, with a well-judged amount of Mellotron enhancing a marvelous vocal melody. It stands head and shoulders above almost everything else on the record and proves that she can coax a great tune out of her software. Rather tellingly, the lyric includes the line “strung along / I hit the wall / it’s technical.” How true.
With the pandemic threatening not to go away anytime soon and the “new normal” becoming just plain “normal”, this kind of one-person-and-a-laptop project is now commonplace. If you’re Todd Rundgren or Paul McCartney, it’ll be second nature. But if you’re a musician who typically works with other musicians, engineers, and producers and, crucially, relies on them to make good decisions on what they do, it’s a challenge. On Blood, Juliana Hatfield has shown that she knows what all the buttons do, but in her voyage of discovery of The Wonderful World of Record Production, she’s forgotten to pack enough decent tunes.