Juliana Hatfield | Peace & Love
Most Likely To: be a long-time artist’s best album.
It rarely works out well when an actual, worthwhile, and serious artist becomes a popular flavor of the week. Their natural audience abandons them because they won’t be caught dead liking the same people as Mary Sue down the street, and Mary Sue will only like whatever is popular at the moment. It’s not particularly tragic if Right Said Fred or Deep Blue Something are on top of the world one moment and tossed on the scrap heap the next, because a moment is really all they deserve at most anyway. But when fate conspires to pull the same trick on a musician with actual merit, it sucks big time.
Juliana Hatfield had a brief reign as the virgin queen of the alternative nation in the mid 1990s, as the former Blake Baby’s catchy pop, grungy but wholesome good looks and the claim that she’d never invited any young gentleman to share her bedchamber –not even that Dando fellow who seemed to always be sniffing around her–generated a fairly loud buzz. However, after too brief a time the powers-that-be decided they’d had enough of hearing Bob Mould and Sonic Youth on commercial radio and declared standard AOR like Hootie and the Blowfish and Sheryl Crow to be “alternative” and ceded the airwaves back to the same sort of stuff they’d been playing since 1973.
With the rug pulled out from under her, Hatfield receded back into cult status, where she’s remained ever since. And like most serious artists who fall from grace due to changing tastes rather than any missteps of their own, Hatfield has spent her time out of the spotlight churning out the best work of her career. Anyone writing her off as a has-been of the alternative radio era does so to their own detriment.
Her new album, Peace & Love, is quite possibly the finest she’s ever recorded. A low-key, mostly acoustic work on which Hatfield plays all the instruments and handles the production, Peace & Love plays like the completion of a trilogy begun on 2005’s Made in China. That album was a raging howl of anger at the way the music industry objectifies and discards female artists, on which Hatfield made a lie of her own statement that women couldn’t be great guitar players as she shredded her instrument like Ellen Ripley in a battle of the bands vs. the alien queen. 2008’s How to Walk Away was the sound of resignation, as Hatfield seemed to finally give up the idea of regaining her onetime success and moved on.
As the title would suggest, Peace & Love finds Hatfield content with her place in the world, and the realization that she is free of any expectations other than her own has filled her with hard won confidence. Her songwriting and performances are unforced like never before in her career and her voice has never sounded better – the little girl chirp that once spawned an entire legion of annoying alterna-waifs has gained more nuance and shading with age than had seemed likely back in her ‘90s heyday.
The track which is sure to gain the most attention is “Evan,” in which she addresses one of the great “are they or aren’t they?” questions in alt-rock history, but other tracks like the piano driven “Why Can’t We Love Each Other” and the uptempo “Let’s Go Home” are more noteworthy. The entire album gains in resonance with each listen, as the subtle hooks and arrangements reveal more of themselves with repetition.
In a career field that doesn’t like to reward longevity and hates once popular rejects who refuse to shut up and go away, it’s great to hear Juliana Hatfield doing work on her own terms that stands head and shoulders over her supposed career peak.