You Pushed Your Greatest Chance Away
281 · 15 June 00
Juliana Hatfield: Beautiful Creature
She didn't write back. She didn't write, she didn't call, she did not respond. I don't blame her. If our places were reversed, if I made an album and she wrote a review of it that amounted to a marriage proposal, I can't say for sure how I would react, either. We pour ourselves into songs and essays, and when we do it right it's a cunning imitation of a sincere attempt at making personal connections, but that doesn't mean we're prepared to be successful. A part of me believed that there really might have been a sense in which Bed was Juliana's attempt to find me, not me in some metaphorical sense but me. And another part of me was simply powerless, once the words "If we marry" lodged themselves in my mind, to do anything but play out the rhetorical impulse and see how a record review that began that way would end. I did hope she would respond (and not, preferably, by having her lawyer send me a threatening memo). If she had, I don't know whether I would have been more thrilled or terrified. But I took the possibility this seriously: I printed out a copy of the review, wrote my name, address and phone number on the bottom of it, took it with me to her concert a few weeks after that issue appeared, waited around after the show until she came back out to sign autographs, and handed it to her. I'm not confident that was a good idea, but it seemed to me that once I had written her a public love letter, not trying to deliver it would constitute some unpleasant mixture of hypocrisy and cowardice. So I delivered it. I wrote a love letter to a stranger, published it, and delivered it. Maybe you think that's romantic, maybe you think it's pathetic. I haven't completely made up my mind, myself.
I was fully prepared to get no response. In my mental calculations, I think I figured there was about a five percent chance, at best, that the letter would break through the wall of expectations and protocol between us. The other ninety-five percent covered a wide range of possible reactions, some of the more coherent ones being aversion, disinterest, incomprehension and unavailability. What I forgot to account for, though, is that if she didn't respond, I would have no way of knowing why. Aversion, disinterest, incomprehension and unavailability are all possibilities, but another possibility is that she never opened the envelope, never even read the thing. When I handed it to her, I didn't explain what it was, I didn't make her promise to read it, I just put it in her hands and walked away. But other people were handing her things, and if you've ever watched Juliana Hatfield interact with her fans I suspect you'll share my impression that it makes her almost intolerably uncomfortable. If a letter she could take home and read in the safety of her own bedroom had a five percent chance of reaching her, any words I could say in person would be lucky to get a tenth of that chance. So I handed her the letter. I didn't try to follow up, I didn't try to find out her phone number, I let the letter either work, or not. And so I have no idea what happened. Maybe she threw it out backstage, on the way to retrieve her guitar. Maybe she took it home, and put it on the pile of things people have handed her after concerts, and it sits there still. Maybe she took it home, opened it, read a paragraph or two, concluded that I was deranged, and threw it out. Maybe she took it home, opened it, read it, and decided that it would be wisest not to encourage me. Maybe she took it home, opened it, read it, and loved it. Maybe she's re-read it a hundred times since, and a hundred times narrowly failed to find the courage to pick up her telephone and dial my number. Maybe she's reading this, now, and feeling foolish. I wish I knew.
So I did, with the same feeling of pointless formality with which you check lottery numbers, open up these two new albums and look through the lyrics and credits in case there was some message or allusion. There would have been a perversely brilliant symmetry, after all, to responding to a love letter in the form of an album review with a love letter in the form of an album. The two records were even available in a limited edition with a bonus multimedia disc that includes, so the promotional material promised, "a letter from Juliana". If she knew me at all, she'd know I would buy the limited edition. The "letter", however, turns out to be a note, at most, and although "from Juliana" seems accurate, it's difficult to say who it's to. "People aren't always what they seem," it complains, "even when they think they are telling the truth. All motivations are hidden." Presumably that doesn't apply to me, unless you think that my proposal of marriage was a facile cover-up for my true desire to get her to just sign my copy of Bed. "Where am I now?", the note concludes. "I'm still here. In between. Thank you for asking. Without you, I may have ceased to exist." This is, given her evident resentment towards her fans (or perhaps it's only fear), very bizarre. I don't think she means it, but it's hard to imagine that she would go so far out of her way as to arrange for a bonus disc just to be obliquely and trenchantly sarcastic to the very people who support her. Then again, the first of the two music tracks on the bonus disc is a raspy and heroic cover of the Police's "Every Breath You Take", which can be construed to be about obsession. Only if she meant it as a critique, why would she sing it like she's loved it since she was fifteen? The other song, a serene alternate version of the album track "When You Loved Me", sheds no further light on the subject. If there is a personal message coded in these noises, the cipher eludes me, and since I went to great pains not to use code, an encrypted reply would make little sense.
But here, if in fact she is intentionally ignoring me, is the ultimate irony: All I really ever had from Juliana was an album I thought was bewitching and magnificent, and now here are two more albums. Her responding might have been the worst possible outcome. I hadn't gotten as far as figuring the odds that we'd get along, if we tried, but surely they were low. Maybe the crush was an end in itself. The relevant question about Beautiful Creature and Total System Failure isn't whether they contain replies to my letter, it's whether I'm still in love with them. My relationship with Juliana Hatfield isn't hidden under these noises, it's in them. She doesn't have to answer my letter, and I didn't have to write it. As long as she keeps making records, the relationship I have with them, which is all I ever had, is entirely out of her control, and arguably out of mine.
Beautiful Creature is, of the two, the one that falls closest to the trajectory that Juliana's records had, at least through 1995's Only Everything, been following. Three of these songs are self-produced, four were done with David Garza, three with Scott Litt, two with Wally Gagel and one with Andy Kravitz, but they share songwriting simplicity and a production aesthetic that is, although nowhere near as stripped-down as Bed's, prudently uncluttered. "Daniel" has some wiry, Meat Puppets-like guitar hooks, but the drums are dry and mechanical, and the choruses revert to Juliana's trademark vocal doubling. "Close Your Eyes", with John Thomasson's vibrant acoustic bass and Garza's languid lead guitar, verges on Laura Nyro. "Choose Drugs" bounces lightly, Duke Roth's cello purring supportively. "Cool Rock Boy" is clipped and churning, guitars growling over drum loops and keyboard programming that might be Gagel's Glen Ballard impersonation. "Don't Rush Me" has the same elements, but sounds like Gagel had Juliana more clearly in mind, and maybe tried to cross-breed her "Universal Heart-Beat" with Alanis' "Hand in My Pocket". "Slow Motion", just a Juliana or two and their guitars, seems to me like a Suzanne Vega song done with more patience. The chiming "Might Be in Love" is a folk-pop gem that for me invokes Vega again, but also Gordon Lightfoot and Sara Hickman. "Somebody Is Waiting For Me" borrows a bass-heavy chord-progression from the Pixies, some wavery keyboards from the Beatles via Michael Penn, and a sweet, fragile chorus from Mary Lou Lord. The elegiac "Until Tomorrow" suggests that if it became politically necessary to redo the Harold & Maude soundtrack without Cat Stevens, Juliana might take his place. "The Easy Way Out" is blaring blues-rock, but "Hotels" is undulating and calm, shimmery piano and spindly acoustic guitar over a toy drum-machine groove. "When You Loved Me" is, except for a crackly, fedback guitar incursion in the middle, a lullaby to rival Marry Me Jane's "You Didn't Kiss Me". And "Cry in the Dark", the sputtering finale, is close enough to "Lights Are Changing" and "Martian Saints" that I can almost hear Mary Lou Lord's version even as Juliana is still singing hers.
I don't track my crush by music alone, though, any more than I chart real-life crushes by what she's wearing. Beautiful Creature was obviously constructed more slowly and deliberately than Bed, and I wonder more than once, during it, whether Juliana has had second thoughts about how she portrayed herself on the last record. The title notwithstanding, in the cover and liner photos she looks gaunt and unhappy. Both characters in "Daniel" seem to be on the verge of implosion ("My eyes are blue like you; / Our babies will be born blue"). "Close Your Eyes" is placatory, but "Choose Drugs", whose chorus repeats, numbly, "I say it's me or drugs, / You choose drugs", is easily one of the saddest songs I've ever heard. "Cool Rock Boy" is throwaway, but "Don't Rush Me" is an earnest, if conflicted, love song ("I hear you, it's so clear, / You hurt me you know where, / Standing with a package in the rain / Full of very heavy air"). Halfway through "Slow Motion" she runs out of words and simply hums until the music finishes. "Might Be in Love", despite the guarded title, is a poignantly self-contained love-song, a third the narrator's doubts, a third her certainties, and a third the plane flight to see him, and I believe it almost completely, but then "Somebody Is Waiting for Me" begins brandishing it like a weapon in the face of whomever the plane is carrying her away from, and "Please forgive me for finding something real and pure and true" is both too vague and too labored, like she's describing a relationship she's constructed in her mind for no other purpose than contrast. "The Easy Way Out" is a relationship disintegrating because one of them hasn't the strength to improve (which reminds me of Sarge's "Half as Far"). "Hotels" is, I think, an extended metaphor about deliberately temporary relationships, and if "There's no ever after, / There's only in-between" is meant as a gloss on the bonus-disc note, it's more plaintive than I'd previously guessed. "When You Loved Me" is a sobering litany of ways in which you can come to depend on somebody else's opinion. Musically, "Cry in the Dark" is a redemptive finale, but the lyrics are a careful portrait of someone who has constructed a system for failure. "Do you cry in the dark / 'Cause it's easier to be alone than to talk?" She could be addressing the narrator of Trembling Blue Stars' "Dark Eyes", which in turn means that she could be addressing me, which makes me wish I was sure what her point is. There's some scorn, I think, but also sympathy, like this timid isolationism is one of the things she disapproves of about herself, too. If that's right, then the album title and the cover photos start to make sense. We teach each other, by our betrayals and inadequacies, all the enticing things that beauty isn't.
Juliana Hatfield: Juliana's Pony: Total System Failure
Stylistically, however, the real follow-up to Bed is Total System Failure (originally meant to be credited simply to "Juliana's Pony", until, I'm guessing, somebody at ZoŽ actually stopped and thought about the record-bin and search-form repercussions), a frenetic, snarling, Juliana-produced band album recorded with the help of drummer Zephan Courtney and bassist Mikey Welsh, and an inspiring absence of ado. Beautiful Creature clearly received more attention, and comfortingly in keeping with my opinions of everything else Juliana has ever put out, which rise as the degree of craftsmanship falls, Total System Failure is a haphazard mess and I adore it hopelessly. The arrangements don't vary much, Courtney's unprepossessing drums tagging along after Welsh's booming bass and Juliana's venomous, distorted guitars, but the emotional intensity ranges from droning dirge to frayed blues, and although I've approved of the general trend away from Nirvana towards epic pop, this record slams into retrograde and may be my nomination for the best squalling guitar record since Bleach, and one of the most quintessentially Bostonian since the Bags' Rock Starve. As indulgent as releasing two albums at once is (or used to be, pre-69 Love Songs), I don't believe any sane person, listening to the results of these two sessions, would have argued for intermingling them.
And although I assume these songs were also written more quickly than the ones on Beautiful Creature, and stomping rock cadences facilitate less intricate lyrics, to me this is by far the more interesting batch of stories, as if editing was never given the chance to sap any of the unruly life out of them. "Metal Fume Fever" is a seething pollution rant keyed by the arresting couplet "I'm burning metal for motherfuckers, / I'm making weapons for Southern lovers". "Houseboy" is a vicious role-reversal fantasy with some astonishingly mean-spirited detail (my favorite being that she sends him to the drug-store with the admonition "I need Advil and Robitussin and condoms", which is ugly first because she seems to regard all three as medicine, and second because she lumps the condoms under "I", not "we", even though he's the one she probably means to use them on). "Road Wrath" makes an anthemic refrain out of "Teenage bitches blaring crap / Out the window of an SUV; / ... I could roll them so easily". The spiteful, self-destructive "Let's Get Married" starts with "I think I love you, / They think I'm desperate", and devolves to "If you change your sweatpants / I'll shave my legs". "Breeders" is an anti-gentrification diatribe centered on the horrific image of a breast implant leaking while an infant is trying to feed. I think the understudy in the mis-accented "My Protégée" is actually the narrator herself, coping with her environment by pretending to be someone else sent in to dismantle it. "Total System Failure" is a merciless excoriation of a hospitalized drug casualty. "Using You"'s idea of a functional relationship dynamic is "I'm choosing you, you are choosing me, / Let's get together and write a screenplay. / Who do you want to be? / I'll be the one who gets her way". "Leather Pants" is, surprisingly, a tirade against wearing leather pants, and "Noblesse Oblige" is the one song here that reads like one from Beautiful Creature, but "Ten Foot Pole", a self-portrait whose most ringing affirmation is "I've got no diseases that I know of", is an ode to low self-opinion that makes "Creep" sound like "I Will Survive".
But my favorite song of the whole two-disc set, and the one most responsible for my reluctance to give up this crush, after all, is "The Victim". The drums pound mutedly, barely distinguishing between kicks and snares, and the bass and guitar drill the same chords for measures on end until it's time for the one-step modulation that here passes for harmonic structure. Hüsker Dü had bubblier moments. The song's narrator, a pregnant drug-addict with a body-image problem who manages to conflate abortion and liposuction, is the character the narrator of "Choose Drugs" refused to become, and although it doesn't take much moral intuition to know that failing to take responsibility for your actions is ignoble, you can learn a lot about somebody by observing what they hate most intensely, and so this grotesque caricature reminds me, as vividly as anything that shows it in direct light, of the character I fell in love with, and tried to write a letter to, care of the girl who invented her. I fell in love with her because I saw a reflection of my own senses of truth and purpose in her eyes, and I wrote the letter because I believed I could give her a life plagued by better trials, a relationship in which we would have to choose between each other and something much more interesting than drugs. She would have to choose between me and invulnerability, between admitting exactly how much truth her songs reveal and hiding on a stage, between harrowing fear and banal, cyclical futility. I would have to choose between cultivated melancholy and the jagged terrain my fantasies overlay, between the fables it's easy to tell myself when their subjects aren't there to interrupt and real stories that never end as neatly, between momentum masquerading as standards and all the compromises and contingencies that constitute sharing the world. What I need, obviously, is to face these choices with actual people, not characters or records or strangers. The problem is, they all inhabit the same universe, so humans compete with dreams, which follow me into wakefulness more readily than humans can accompany me into sleep. Falling in love with albums doesn't help, but I don't do it to help, I do it to refine the problem. And while refining a problem doesn't necessarily make it easier to solve, the hope is that it makes solutions easier to evaluate. She didn't write back, she didn't call, she did not respond, but I think I now know, as I didn't when I wrote her, what she would have had to say. "What if you're right?" Or, "What incapacities are you offering me?" Or "Who would we become?" Or nothing more, if the tone was right, than "Can it wait until morning?"