Juliana Hatfield delivers two decidedly different discs

Thursday, June 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Ask Juliana Hatfield to compare her new songs with her old tunes and she trots out all the usual words songwriters use to describe their music: "growth," "maturity," "evolution."

But ask her to describe how she's matured in real life and the 32-year-old singer doesn't give herself a very good progress report.

"I'm definitely still struggling with how to live a normal day-to-day life like other people do," she says on a call from Cleveland, a stop on her current tour.

"I'm still having a hard time fitting into the world. I'm still struggling with trying to be an adult."

That sense of uncertainty and awkwardness has become the hallmark of Ms. Hatfield's music. As leader of the underappreciated Boston trio the Blake Babies and later as a solo artist, she earned a rep as alt-rock's queen of dysfunctional coming-of-age songs. In her best-known tune, 1993's "My Sister," she played the role of a confused, angst-ridden teenager who alternately idolizes and lashes out at her older sibling.

But now Ms. Hatfield says she wants to erase the public image of her as "this scared little waif with a girlish voice singing about teenage brokenhearted-ness."

"Hopefully, I've evolved a bit in the last six or seven years," she says. "I think some of my earlier stuff annoyed people - probably because of the sound of my voice, which has gotten a bit lower and richer - but also because my lyrics were shockingly upfront and brutally personal in a grating kind of way."

She's far less confessional - and a lot more caustic - throughout Total System Failure, the hard-rocking new CD she recorded with a band she calls Juliana's Pony. Yet there are plenty of traces of the old, highly emotional Juliana on Beautiful Creature, the pop-minded album she released last month on the same day as Total System Failure.

Unlike Bruce Springsteen and Guns N' Roses (two acts who've also released concurrent-but-separate discs), Ms. Hatfield has made two albums that have almost nothing in common with each other - musically or lyrically.

"It wouldn't have made sense to put out a double album, because they're too different," she says. "I've always had this great love of pop music, and also this great love of hard rock music, and I wanted to explore those two sides of me. The rock one was done really fast, and it's loose and sloppy, whereas Beautiful Creature was more polished because I took more time doing it and worked with producers [including Scott Litt and Austin's Davíd Garza].

"Lyrically, Beautiful Creature was a bit more soft and vulnerable. But the other one is unforgiving and kind of cynical."

Seldom before has Ms. Hatfield sneered as loudly as she does on "Road Wrath," an acid-grunge rant in which she imagines ramming her car into slowpoke drivers.

"I'm not proud of it, but I actually think that way when I'm driving," she says. "I think I'm one of the better drivers I've ever known, so I don't have a lot of patience for bad drivers."

"House Boy," another tune on Total System Failure, tells the tale of a woman who orders around her boy toy/personal assistant like a slave.

"It describes a fantasy I've had for a real long time, though I'm not really in a position yet to have house boys. . . . First I have to have a house."

But perhaps the most scathing tune on Failure is "Breeders," a diatribe against yuppie families who move into the neighborhood with their obnoxious bawling babies.

In the tune, Ms. Hatfield sings: "Shut it up/Put some Pepsi in the baby's bottle/Or hit it harder."

"A lot of these songs are kind of disturbing and dark and gross, and you can see them as kind of funny - but I didn't mean for them to be," she says.
Yet lest you think she's morphed into a total punk-rock ogre, Beautiful Creature presents a more sensitive side of Ms. Hatfield in such songs as "Cry in the Dark," "Somebody Is Waiting for Me" and "Choose Drugs." Ms. Hatfield based the latter on an ill-fated affair she had with an addict who decided drugs were more important than she was.

"Actually, when I wrote the song, it hadn't happened yet, so the song was kind of prophetic in my life," she says. "It goes along with 'Cool Rock Boy' [another Beautiful Creature track], which was also written while being in the middle of a relationship and knowing full well that it will end badly, but still being in it."

Just like the solitary characters in some of her songs, Ms. Hatfield has conflicted feelings about isolation: While she admits she's lonely, she's not so sure that's a bad thing.

"I have a hard time finding people I'm compatible with and sustaining relationships - but I don't even know that it's what I want. And since most of the world does want that, I feel like an outcast.

"That's why the musical lifestyle is a good lifestyle for someone like me," she says. "You get stuck in this sort of non-reality or hyper-reality where you don't have to grow up and worry about fitting in with the rest of the world."