By Blake Maddux
Overall, Juliana Hatfield’s Weird is closer to good than to great.
The four albums that Boston music luminary Juliana Hatfield has released since 2015 comprise a reunion with The Juliana Hatfield Three (Whatever, My Love), the trenchant anti-Trump Pussycat, the palate-cleansing covers album Sings Olivia Newton-John, and 2019’s Weird, which was engineered and mixed at Somerville’s Q Division Studios. While Hatfield’s latest might not rank among the very best work of her 32-year recording career, it is certainly no mere placeholder in what is shaping up to be the most productive decade of her solo career.
Weird kicks off with “Staying In,” the lyrics to which recall the Smiths song “This Charming Man,” with Hatfield’s “I’m staying in/My hair’s not right” serving as her answer to Morrissey’s “I would go out tonight/But I haven’t got a stitch to wear.”
The album’s closer, “Do It to Music,” meanwhile, sounds like her version of The Beach Boys “Add Some Music to Your Day.” However, the latter song is about pleasant things – with the possible exception of “a dentist’s chair” – that pair well with tuneful accompaniment. Hatfield’s scenarios are significantly less sunny: “Life disappoints and hurts/Efforts often fall short/Melody is an elevator/Makes everything seem better”; “I disappointed you/And I hurt you too/Melody can be disarming/Will you forgive me/If I sing that I’m sorry?” (And props to her for rhyming “storm the palace” with “Aurora Borealis,” even if it’s only for the sake of doing so.)
Elsewhere, Hatfield sings, “You can do anything that you want when you don’t belong to anyone” (“It’s So Weird”) and “no one has any power over me” (“Lost Ship”). These lyrics could be optimistically heard to be about recording for a small, independent label – in her case, American Laundromat – that isn’t all about the bottom line. However, they are probably correctly interpreted as an attempt to find loneliness’s silver lining, which is a recurrent theme on the album.
Since there are some lyrics that sound like full-on cries for help, it is likely that this attempt is a futile one. Still, most of the not particularly happy songs are uptempo. Even the rollicking “All Right, Yeah” – which starts off sounding like The New Pornographers before settling into a carefree power pop groove reminiscent of another Canadian band, Sloan – is revealed by some of its words to be not as fully upbeat as it sounds.
On “Broken Doll,” Hatfield conjures up some vivid imagery with “There’s blood in the bathroom sink/When I brush my teeth” and “There’s sand on my popsicle.” This is also one of the several songs on which the Berklee grad impresses with her fiery and spirited fretwork. (Furthermore, it is the title of a 2015 song by Richard Thompson, about whom Hatfield wrote some interesting passages in her 2009 memoir, When I Grow Up.)
Hatfield’s voice is in customary fine form throughout, and the better songs are well worth repeated spins. Still, there are several tracks that fall short of the mark. “Sugar,” “Everything’s for Sale,” and “Paid to Lie” lack lyrical punch, with the latter two building only marginally on Pussycat‘s themes as the era of the transactional presidency persists.
Overall, Weird is closer to good than to great. Nevertheless, the unmistakable Juliana Hatfield-ness that has kept her afloat for all of these years is copious. That alone should suffice to please longtime fans.
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, the Somerville Times, and the Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and one-year-old twins–Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson–in Salem, Massachusetts.