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.