Music

Juliana Hatfield: Pussycat

A dark but musically jubilant reaction to the 2016 election from a rock singer-songwriter at the top of her craft. This is Juliana Hatfield's best album.


Juliana Hatfield

Pussycat

Label: American Laundromat
US Release Date: 2017-04-28
UK Release Date: 2016-04-28
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Juliana Hatfield has often seemed like a difficult artist making very agreeable music. She’s had a complicated history, ups and downs with the media, a flash of stardom followed by something more like cult status. Yet, more often than not, the music itself is a bottle rocket of joy.

Not that she writes happy tunes, exactly. They are as often as not songs about conflict, tiny short stories in song form, raw and artful at once. But her ability to write a great melody and wed it to an irresistible hook is one of the finest in the last 30 years. Take “Sunny Somewhere”, which starts with "a dark grey cloud over this whole damn town” but rides on a swinging set of chord changes that explode into open, hopeful harmonies at the end of each verse. The balance of “cold and bleak” and a set of fantasies of visiting legendary beaches sums up Hatfield's art neatly.

Pussycat, the new set of 14 quick and wonderful tunes, is as good as anything in Hatfield’s catalog. The story is that she wrote these songs in a rush after the 2016 election, going into Somerville’s legendary Q Division studio with only a drummer (Pete Caldes) and her own guitars. Cut in less than two weeks, the record is a wonder of balance and melody.

There are at least two songs directly inspired by the Trump victory. “Kellyanne” is trouble. “Kellyanne, you make me mad / You’re so hard like a rock in my shoe / Like every bitch in high school / Do you love, do you feel? / Did you used to be real? / Is there any blood underneath those steely eyes?” But here’s what’s brilliant about it — aside from the usual strong tune — if you force yourself to forget about Trump’s Ms. Conway, it seems like an exceptional song about a woman who has been torturing the narrator, romantically. Sure it’s a song about an awful woman, but the opening verse is “Kellyanne, I don’t understand the way you make me feel / The way you turn me upside down, the way my heart sinks when you come around / Like suddenly I don’t know who I am”. This, then, is about both our attraction to a horror and our repulsion from it. Another classic Hatfield break-up song? Or a very very very clever piece of three-minute art?

“Short Fingered Man” brings to mind a certain chief executive, but it is more likely simply a song about a man who “can’t get her off”. Though “He’s easily hurt / He’s very insecure / You have to talk gently to him / Like a little girl” too. More important, maybe, is the fact that this two-minute rock song sounds like the best kind of killer ‘60s music: punched up with a Farfisa organ patch that meshes beautifully with a crunching guitar riff.

That organ appears on plenty of other tunes as well, each time evoking the great songs of that early era but also bringing to mind Elvis Costello from the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. “Heartless” is a series of questions asked of a jerk (“How can you apologize when you’re not sorry?”) who might be in a certain politician (“How can you lead with no ideology?”). But I’m too busy loving the music to do much analysis. The organ toggles and bops, Hatfield’s guitar solo crackles with distortion, and the harmony on the vocals is like a vein of sugar-cinnamon in the center of a cake. Man, does the tune rock all the while.

“You’re Breaking My Heart” is vintage Hatfield — mid tempo rock with a strong, irresistible melody that unspools a story of a love gone at least a little wrong. The line is peppered with vocal harmony and set off by a really nice bridge that gives the tune tension and release followed by the briefest of guitar solos. This is the Hatfield of “My Sister”, a singer who allures and only growls a little. And it’s the Hatfield who really knows how to make a great record, as the whole thing is undergirded by a synth/organ patch that floats like a syrupy life raft on the waves of the guitars.

In most of these songs, the vocal melody is twinned with a guitar lick that is a great melody on its own. “When You’re a Star” rides on the riff, then Hatfield turns and twists her vocal around it. On the long chorus at the end of the short tune, Hatfield lets the chords shift and transform before resolution, making this the kind of song that might work on a New Pornographers album: layered with harmony just a shade too hip for an indie-rock record. “Good Enough for Me” is also a strong, slightly sad melody twinned with a gutsy guitar line. “He exaggerates and whines / But, hey, I’m no prize / I’m no genius / I tend to believe his lies / He’s good enough for me” is a such a clever and self-aware set of lyrics, the kind that make you want to send the song to a friend but don’t for fear that the friend will send it right back to you.

Romance is often the alternate reading of these tunes if you’d rather not think about DC. “I Want to be Your Disease” strikes me as an answer to Sheryl Crow’s old hit, “My Favorite Disease”. Rather than copping to loving a man who isn’t good for her, Hatfield’s narrator boasts that she is the disease, bringing a lover to his knees. It’s a revenge fantasy, a threat: “I want to make you sorry / Sorry for all of the people you’ve hurt / Cheated and lied to and worse”. But it’s also a song that expresses desire in the thudding movement of its heartbeat bass line. It’s the opening tune, and there is no way you’re not going to keep listening. “Rhinoceros” seems to be a tune about sexual harassment and getting away with untruths, but it works as a warning to a friend with a bad boyfriend. America, are you listening?

“Touch You Again” is another one about an asshole mistreating his partner, yet ironically it’s the song where Hatfield lets her voice run loose and sound the most vulnerable. She often sings toward the bottom of her register, but here she lets it float up high, in that girlish space that might not seem to fit her rock aesthetic but that actually just makes her art more complex. Who’s never going to be mistreated again? That little girl, I think, pushed to grow up by the other Hatfield, the scruffier one.

In the end, Pussycat is a celebration of some kind. The lyrical subjects are dark, but the music wins and lifts you up. “Sex Machine” is not the James Brown song but a crunch-guitar driven promise from a lover to build a machine that will do “all of the things you want a girl to”. The thing has “countless functions and screens”, and it promises to fulfill every fantasy — and you can “demean it, debase it” meaning that “Finally I’ll be free”. But how does a song this cynical get away with both a danceable groove and a soaring release that lifts you into harmonic heaven? “Impossible Song” is even better and certainly more hopeful. And it has this great chorus: “What if we tried to get along? / Sing an impossible song / Figure it out later on?” In a world of messed up relationships, you hear this song and know exactly why the narrator is in a relationship. Her appeal to her lover is the one we all fall for in the end: things are imperfect, but we need each other for that exact reason. “You could go deaf / And I could go blind”, Hatfield sings. We complete each other, but because we’re wounded.

We are all imperfect. But Pussycat might just be an exception. As a collection of rock songs, it is deadly on the mark, a bulls-eye, a shot of sunshine and bourbon to your gut. It takes its place as the year’s most glowing record of despair, and joy? And as Juliana Hatfield’s best album.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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