By Mark Guarino
Last week’s breakup announcements by the Smashing Pumpkins and Oasis leaves any fan of early to mid-‘90s rock asking, “whatever happened to alternative music?” Almost every band from that era has either crumbled or is shades away from what they once were.
Juliana Hatfield, however, remains one of that era’s most underrated but endurable artists, whose often disturbing looks at feminism and beauty on her first few albums raised the bar for rock lyricism. The dichotomy between her sweet, girlish voice and the harsh news it reported — paranoia, bulimia, masochism and the beauty myth— was alarming.
With alternative rock slowly burning out in the past few years, Hatfield’s peers, like Liz Phair or Natalie Merchant, adopted the Lilith Fair ethos where fashion appeal, radio yearning singles and market tie-ins replaced interesting music that had something to say. Although she did make play a second stage at Lilith in 1997, Hatfield was ultimately a more complicated artist than her peers, an alt.rock survivor who continues to make challenging, if lower-keyed, albums.
Her newest— a pair of albums respectively titled “Beautiful Creature” and “Total System Failure” — are very likely the most complex work she’s done to date. “Beautiful Creatures” is more polished pop. Although it debuts computer-programmed beats for the first time on her record, the overall tone is more gentle and mourning. Singing “I say it’s me or drugs/you choose drugs” (“Choose Drugs”), she coos the last word so gracefully and for so long, it ultimately is left hanging as a sad, final elegy. Many songs strike the same tone — “he looks alright outside/but he feels so bad inside” (“Daniel”) and “don’t let the dark side bring you down” (“Close Your Eyes”) — that the album is as tender as pop music gets.
“Total System Failure,” however, excepts no excuses. Dirty and dense in feedback, Hatfield — with bassist Mikey Welsh of Weezer and drummer Zephan Courtney of Milligram — make chaotic garage rock stamped with darkly cynical lyrics. Going after everyone from pokey drivers to drug addicts to women falling under the plastic surgeon’s knife, “Failure” makes great noise while making strong stances.
While the strength of the first album contradicts the strength of the second, the complete picture of both creates a window into one person’s often contradicting states of mind. It’s a scary area not many songwriters are willing to explore.
“It just sort of happened,” Hatfield explained last week. “(‘Failure’) was just something I thought of after I finished the mellow, pretty stuff. I had the urge to do something really rock. I felt I wasn’t done. I felt the urge to blow off steam and get rid of all the extra frustration and energy I had left over.”
Both albums showcase Hatfield’s underrated, but weighty, guitar chops, ripe with different textures and the always-present power hook. She recorded the second album quickly in two weeks, which explains the excessive guitar and vocal overdubs. “I didn’t have time to make everything really polished and left on ideas I had rather than choosing a particular take,” she said.
The most striking thing about “Failure” is its lyrics, which refuse to be shy. “The Victim” lashes out as plastic surgery patients while “Breeders” takes the voice of a drug addict quick to abandon its baby. “When the baby feeds and the implant leaks/it’s a screaming monster/shut it up/put some Pepsi in the baby’s bottle/or hit it harder,” she sings.
“It wasn’t my intention to get attention. I was in a bad mood,” Hatfield said. “I was disgusted with people and myself. Every time I hear another story about someone throwing away their newborn baby in the trash, I’m completely horrified. I can’t really empathize. People who die getting liposuction and who subject themselves to this mutilation, it’s horrifying.”
Another song, “My Protégé,” waves a heavy Led Zeppelin-like riff, as she sings, “she can’t live on air but no one has to know/and if you binge, you gotta purge.”
“It’s just about being female and just being aware of all the sexism that’s just everywhere,” she said. “It’s about what girls and women have to go through to be successful and desirable in any business…especially in the entertainment industry.”
The Boston-based Hatfield herself endured an eating disorder before becoming a music magazine cover darling, due to the success of her 1993 album, “Become What You Are” (Atlantic/Mammoth). The spotlight dimmed when that album’s follow-up “Only Everything” (Atlantic/Mammoth) wasn’t ripe with bigger radio hits. She recorded a third album for Atlantic, “God’s Foot,” but the label heard no radio single and has since refused to release it.
Since then, Hatfield funded her own albums — the EP “Please Do Not Disturb” in 1997 (released by Bar/None) and the full-length “Bed” in 1998 (released by Zoe). In fact, the only way an experiment such as her newest two-album set could even be accomplished artistically, was if she was homeless with no label. “It was all on my own money,” she said. “No one was critiquing me, no one was asking any questions.”
Zoe, a rock subsidiary of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Rounder Records, agreed to release both, with no changes. That’s a rare decision for a rock label in these narrow, category-conscious times. But Rounder, one of the largest independent labels operating today, is successful with niche folk and blues artists, where artistry counts more than returns.
Hatfield has given up hope that “God’s Foot” will ever get released from Atlantic’s grip. “I don’t care anymore. I was brokenhearted about it, now I’m just past it. I don’t even want it to come out, it wouldn’t mean anything to me,” she said.
She also has abandoned the burden of trying to find a place on the radio again. It may be wise, since her type of confessional lyrics and feedback-drenched pop hooks would not be in fashion alongside the prevailing rap metal and kiddie pop today.
“I have no control over my songs getting on the radio and that’s really good to know,” she said. “I can’t guarantee anyone is going to buy it, so I might as well do whatever the hell I want and wait for the world to come to me. If they want to come to me, great, but I’m not going to waste my energy trying to make them love me.”