Baby fights the blues

By JAMES PARKER  |  September 17, 2008

The darkness inside
One hesitates to label How To Walk Away “mature,” but it sort of is. The opener, “The Fact Remains,” has a lovely, oblique, downward-winding melody like something from the first Smiths album, one of Morrissey’s onanistic lullabies. “I stayed/’Til ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ played/And I couldn’t keep my eyes open . . . I finally wised up, but the fact remains/I stayed too long.” The lyrics are about romantic bad timing, but serve also as Hatfield’s rueful salute to her own durability. “I’ve been in the spotlight,” she says quietly. “I’ve been out of the spotlight, but my desire and determination never wavered. And when the spotlight turned away from me, it didn’t make me any less desperate to create music. So in this book I wanted to tell the truth about myself and make people understand my motivations and my dedication. And I’m still not sure why I need to put that stuff out there, but I think that I’m so almost pathologically reserved in my day-to-day interactions with people that the writing and the music are ways to communicate for me.”

What else do we learn from When I Grow Up? That she is annoyed by Proust, Brian Eno’s Music For Films, and the guitar solos of Richard Thompson. That she likes a bit of Abba and Ace of Base. “Sure, I loved the Stooges and Blue Cheer and Squirrel Bait,” she writes, “but I loved Wilson Phillips, too. Why couldn’t I?”

What an exquisite stroke of irony — the fact that this artist, entrusted by her muse with many heavy bummers and songs about falling to pieces, is obliged to deliver said bummers in compact doses of pop euphoria. Life is a detuned E string, but the heart has its super-sweet chords: Joe Carducci’s Rock & the Pop Narcotic, the Leviathan of rockcrit, could have been a monograph on Juliana Hatfield. Even when petulantly distorting her gifts, as on the rocky, all-aggro Juliana’s Pony:Total System Failure (2000), she can’t help writing the killer hooks.

Dissolution is communicated in trenchant couplets: “I feel funny,” she moans on “What Do I Care” from 2005’s Made In China, “Is it over? Am I dead or asleep on the sofa?” (“I crack myself up constantly,” she says of her lyrics.) Her guitar playing grows slurred, low-slung, a noise like rusted chrome — still beautiful. “For a long time, I wanted to be J Mascis,” she says. “I tried to play guitar like him, and I tried to write songs that were really gorgeous and heavy and fuzzy. A female J Mascis, I guess. Right now, though, I’m really liking the Tings Tings record. That’s inspiring to me right now — really catchy, and well-produced, but kind of raw-sounding. I’d like to make a record like that.”

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