In the early to mid-nineties, Juliana Hatfield was a rising star. I remember in 1993 hearing her single “My Sister” on top 40 radio. It seems strange now considering what currently populates the airwaves, but Juliana Hatfield, for a fleeting moment, was poised for a breakthrough. The inclusion of her song “Spin the Bottle” on the “Reality Bites” soundtrack helped cement her place in the Generation X, altena-hipster scene. Later, she guest-starred on the much-beloved-but-canceled show “My So Called Life,” in a rather memorable episode and her 1995 album “Only Everything” showed her to be one of the more gifted, hard-edged guitarists of the nineties.
For the last twenty years or so, in fact, Juliana Hatfield has been an alternative, singer-songwriter staple. She rose up in the band Blake Babies and then had a brief, high-profile stint as the bassist of the Lemonheads. This led into her extensive solo career and her enjoyable, recent side-project, Some Girls.
It’s a nice surprise to find that her new album, “How To Walk Away” is actually the most mature, confident, assured, enjoyable, solid album of her solo career. She has never put together as consistent a collection of songs as she has here. A few times, she’s come close. (“Bed” from 1998 was a really strong album, as was “In Exile Deo” from 2004.) This record is different because never before have her elements of songcraft been so keenly and completely synced up. Often, her tunes were good, but her lyrics weren’t at the same level. Here, she’s lyrically at the top of her game.
Even more surprisingly, it’s a very mellow record. Those expecting her to fully rock out and show off her skills with a fuzz-pedal will have to wait. This is a very gentle record. Compared to the roughness of her last full-length record, “Made In China,” this one seems much more calm and commercial.
“How To Walk Away” was produced by Andy Chase, who is known both as a member of the band Ivy and for his own Brookville albums. If you are a fan of those bands, you’ll definitely recognize his signature ethereal sound on here. The songs gloriously float as if they are just sitting on the air. Chase’s subtle electronics truly compliment Hatfield’s acoustically-driven set of songs.
Hatfield has assembled an all-star dream cast of musicians, too, making the album even more of a find. Notably, Tracy Bonham, (herself, very much in need of a new album) plays violin at various parts throughout, while Jody Porter of Fountains of Wayne adds some guitar work.
The record opens with “The Fact Remains,” which is a wonderfully moody piece. Hatfield still possesses her girlish voice, but this backing track has almost an earthy, Beth Orton-like sense of drama. Here, there’s an earnest sense of loss within the song’s core. Hatfield nods to the album’s title while singing how she “stayed to long,” and how she learned “how to walk away.”
“Shining On” continues the album’s acoustic, wintery feeling, although it’s a tad bit brighter sounding than the first track. Her lyrics about a fighting couple are balanced out by her somewhat optimistic chorus. Never the less, images of endings and deaths prevail, giving the song an overall broken-hearted feeling.
“This Lonely Love” is built around a vaguely funky, strutting piano part and it continues the trend. This album is most probably a break-up record and a very fine one at that. Hatfield conveys the mood of a person falling apart. “I broke down on 14th Street, / I could have been blind /And you could’ve been anywhere in the world, / But I saw you in my mind.” The song’s chorus of “This lonely love is all around. / It’s up in the air and underground…” is punctuated by the wonderfully deep warble of Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs and Love Spit Love, who sings back-up on the track. (Butler, himself released a similarly impressive self-titled solo record in 2006. It should be mandatory listening for anyone who has ever been a fan of his work.) This track is a single waiting to happen.
“My Baby…” is another song about a dying relationship. Hatfield describes a scene and then sings, “Oh, my baby doesn’t love me anymore.” Her sense of detail is sharper than ever.
“Just Lust” is a slightly grungy, slightly bluesy rock song describing a 3AM booty-call from a wasted boyfriend. At the beginning of the track, fitting to the storyline, Hatfield’s voice sounds all crackly and raspy, as if she actually was just awakened. In the chorus she sets the man straight by saying, “It’s just lust. / It doesn’t mean I love you.” It’s a cutting song about a woman who wants everything but a real relationship.
“Now I’m Gone” is similarly mutedly and fuzzy sounding. It could’ve easily been on any of her records, but it fits this album’s broken relationship motif. “It was you and me, / So I left, / Now I’m gone,” she sings in a very matter of fact tone.
“Remember November” is the best track on this album. (That’s saying a lot because there isn’t a bad song in this bunch!) If there was ever an argument for Hatfield to have another major pop single, it’s this ballad. I sincerely think this song could open her up to whole new audience. In fact, if this song isn’t on the airwaves within a matter of months, my theory that the radio industry truly is now broken will only be validated. Here, Hatfield somehow manages to sing a very heartfelt, soft, affectionate song full of longing without sounding cheesy. It’s a testament not only to her songwriting ability, but to her skills as a performer, as well. A lesser singer would’ve probably sugared this song up and ruined it. Hatfield hits everything exactly right. When the very melodic bridge comes around, it just makes the whole thing a much sweeter delight. Whereas the tracks before it describe breakups in a striking, almost negative light, this song mournfully and lovingly remembers the good times. It’s romantic, sweet and cathartic all at the same time. It’s proof that Hatfield really has a great amount of unrecognized range. It’s an unexpected stunner.
“So Alone” has a dark, brooding drive to it. It’s a rocky, road-ready song full of woe and discontent. A guitar sea swells up as a drum sound clatters along in the back to stirring effect. This would make for a great single as well. “You’re so alone/ So alone. / You want to die and nobody knows,” she sings. This is a fitting ode to disillusion and depression and there’s urgency in Hatfield’s voice.
“Such a Beautiful Girl” is about a sad, young woman whole “lives in an ugly world.” Hatfield’s thesis on personal isolation continues as she sings, “It makes a person strong to be alone for so long.” The song features Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws singing backup. Perhaps this is payback for Hatfield’s guest appearance on “I Wanna Take You Home,” a standout track on the bonus disc packaged with Nada Surf’s latest album, “Lucky.” Both Juliana Hatfield and Nada Surf were once associated with louder, grungier rock. Both are now finding their footing in softer, more delicate terrain without losing any of their cool.
The album closes with the acoustic “Law of Nature” which compares killing flies to the fleeting sense of love. “I’m heading your way into your burning flame,” she sings as if love only leads to loss and impending doom. It may be pessimistic, but it wraps up the album nicely.
Dissatisfaction and sadness have rarely sounded so alluring. On “How To Walk Away,” Hatfield has crafted a nearly flawless collection about the pitfalls of lost love. Even if you haven’t heard any of the albums she’s done since “Become What You Are,” you should pick this one up. It’s well worth a listen and it is deserving of your attention. Hatfield has always made very listenable records. This may very well be her first true masterpiece.