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Juliana Hatfield: Blood

Juliana Hatfield made her name with the jagged-edged and sometimes ramshackle power pop of the Blake Babies, but it was her zeitgeist-channeling 1992 solo album Hey Babe that really put her on the musical map. Though still solidly within the alt-rock genre, the album was at the time a refreshing alternative to the diminishing-returns post-grunge rock that had dominated the US alternative scene in the aftermath of Nevermind and which had begun to form the new mainstream. Since that debut, the singer-songwriter has continued to make her fair share of breezy guitar pop records, but back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s she began to divide her work between albums which were more commercial and others which displayed her penchant for more harsh/punk music. In recent years, the more accessible end of her work has been reserved for albums of covers; Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton John (2018) and Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police (2019). If that pattern holds true, Blood is due to be one of those more grizzled and grungy albums, and so it is, in part. Thankfully, it’s a lot more than that too.

Despite its ominous title, Blood doesn’t have the chaotic rush of Juliana’s Pony: Total System Failure (2000) or even the dark brutality of 2005’s Made in China. It’s a far more rounded collection of songs of various types, unified by their immediate, straightforward and relatively no-frills, home-made approach. The tone – not surprisingly – is a little darker than the Police album, but it’s as much invigorating as it is bleak or despondent. The gift for melody that marks Hatfield’s work right back to the Blake Babies days is here in abundance; the tonally lighter songs, like “Gorgon,” “Nightmary” and “Splinter” are accessible and catchy. Still, with lyrics like “I never promised anyone anything/ No enchanted fairytales/ You must have interpreted it wrong/ Because I don’t sing love songs” (“Gorgon”), “The whole world is controlled by fascist blood-sucking thugs” (“Nightmary”) and “I’m ready to finally pop this bubble/ Get myself in some kind of trouble/ I dream mostly of justice” (“Splinter”) these songs are never in danger of saccharine sweetness, even without their pleasingly abrasive musical edges.

Thanks to the circumstances of its recording – like many albums of 2021, it was made at home – Blood is for the most part a true solo album, with Hatfield tackling almost everything and only collaborator Jed Davis providing some synth, drum programming and occasional bass. Home recording can sometimes lead to navel-gazing self-indulgence, but Blood is a concise and pared-down album and the most obvious experimental aspect–a kind of inventive grungy glitch-rock that appears on a couple of tracks–always serves the song rather than being played for its own sake. The most extreme but also most convincing example is “Chunk”, a vituperative but groovy song that balances its musical harshness with a vocal that remains cool and measured even when delivering satisfyingly nasty lines like “Someone’s gonna chop you up into chunks/ Put you into garbage bags/ And take you to the dump.

This balance between accessible form and challenging content is what really characterizes the album. Even its most despairing songs, like highlight “Mouthful of Blood,” employ some of the most infectious melodies that Hatfield has ever written. On paper, a hit single that contains the lyrics “if I say what I want to say/ It might just get me killed/ There’s no freedom in expression/and I don’t think I will let you in on my thoughts” with the chorus “I bite my tongue/ My mouth’s full of blood” seems highly unlikely, but the song itself seems like a natural for radio airplay. Perhaps working on the covers albums – fun and likeable in themselves – has reconnected Hatfield with the craft of pop song writing, even if she imbues the songs with more depth than the average chart hit. The album’s secret weapon is the mellotron, which fills the occasionally sparse sound beautifully, complementing the deliciously melancholy atmosphere of its most immediately affecting songs like “Mouthful of Blood” and the surprisingly-delicate-given-its-title closing track, “Torture.”

With a career numbering 19 studio albums, plus four more with the Blake Babies (four and a half including the UK-only mini album Slow Learner), two with Some Girls and one each for Minor Alps and The I Don’t Cares, it would be surprising if Juliana Hatfield’s discography was uniformly great; and of course it isn’t. At times, especially after her brilliant early-to-mid ‘90s series of albums, it seemed like the separating of her melodic from harsher material made two so-so albums where there could have been one great one; that said, she’s rarely released a bad record and in a career of many highlights, Blood is one of the absolute best.

Summary
Juliana Hatfield’s 19th solo album is one of her finest: an ideal marriage of catchy melody, musical experimentation and troubled lyricism.
85 %
Jagged pop perfection

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