The Essentials: How to Walk Away by Juliana Hatfield

I tuned into the Q Division channel on YouTube yesterday afternoon for Juliana Hatfield’s latest livestream, which found her performing her 2008 How to Walk Away album from start to finish. (For anyone who missed it, My Shuffled Life offers an excellent recap.) It reminded me that, a while back, I started an Essentials essay about the album that I never finished. I couldn’t find any words beyond: “It’s 10 songs. Forty-three minutes. And perfect.” I did better back in 2008, when I named it my Album of the Year in a Facebook post (that I’ve since moved here), saying that: “[i]t’s a lush, hook-laden song cycle filled with melodies guaranteed to sweep away all but the hard-hearted and lyrics imbued with honesty, humor and pathos galore.”

At the time of its release, Juliana was poised to publish her memoir, When I Grow Up, and also toying with quitting the music business – or was up until she joined producer Andy Chase in the Stratosphere Sound studio in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. The Boston Globe’s Joan Anderman explained in an August 24th, 2008, profile that “Hatfield always hated her thin, girlish voice, at least until recently. But Chase put her songs into lower keys, and Hatfield discovered that she has a deeper, silky range. Ironically, she’s so pleased (as she should be) with how the album turned out, Hatfield is reconsidering her decision to walk away from music.” The piece concludes with this quote from Juliana: “I’m trying to break through with my music. It’s just taking a while. Maybe I’ll be peaking in September, maybe in 10 years. That’s why I haven’t quit, because I don’t feel like I’m there yet. But I’m closer than I ever was.”

The album boasts a few notable guest appearances, too: Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs, Matthew Caws of Nada Surf (and, in a few years, Minor Alps), Jody Porter of Fountains of Wayne, and Tracy Bonham. They blend into the background of the songs, however, and those songs are the real stars here – well, them and JH, whose “deeper, silky range” is a thing of wonder.

In an excellent review that appeared in many newspapers, the AP’s Chris Talbott equated HTWA to “reading the diary of that girlfriend you cruelly dumped, full of melancholy and a little bit of acid.” But, really, it’s more akin to listening to the audio version of said girlfriend’s diary after she walked out on you. (That said, JH did tell me in a long-ago 20 Questions that she often means herself when she sings “you” and someone else when she sings “I.”) For the purposes of the album, however, it doesn’t matter. As she sings in “The Fact Remains,” the opening track, “I finally wised up, but the fact remains/I stayed too long, I stayed too long/Next time maybe I will know how to walk away/With pride and grace and faith in myself/Knowing how the world works and the way that things change.”

If “The Fact Remains” delves deep into the whys and lies that led to the end of the relationship, the next song, “Shining On,” eulogizes it: “We will always be beautiful on the night we kissed in the stairwell/Before we really knew each other yet/It may not be easy but we need to forget/All the mistakes, disasters and words/That should never have been spoken…”

Have I mentioned how note-perfect the production is? Some critics found the pop sheen too polished; Pitchfork’s Joshua Klein, for instance, says it veers to the singer-songwriter territory staked out by Suzanne Vega and Aimee Mann: “[I]f Hatfield is as hurt as she seems, if she’s in pain, it would have been a welcome change had she, even once, let some of that lingering anger out in the music as well as the lyrics.” Yeah, I know – what ears has he? The dichotomy between the barbed lyrics and sweet sonics only adds to the tension – and, too, prevents the proceedings from devolving into a primal-scream fest. 

“Now I’m Gone” is a good example of what I mean. Its bouncy nature ushers you into a world that’s not quite what it seems, which is brought home by the verses (my favorite line: “You have no faith in the future, you don’t believe/That I still got the holy spirit in me”) with the catchy chorus (“it was you or me, so I left, now I’m gone.”).  

My favorite song on the album, however, is “This Lonely Love,” about a different sort of relationship. As I wrote in 2008, it “captures the very essence of loving an intangible – that is to say, music. That it borrows the guitar and piano riffs from in exile deo’s ‘It Should Have Been You’ makes it all the more sweet: ‘I am only the song you sing,’ indeed.”

Another highlight is “Such a Beautiful Girl,” about a girl who “writes and dreams” in order to escape an ugly world. The heartfelt song, which features poetic lyrics by her brother Jason, is one of my wife’s favorites.

Anyway, in the larger scheme of things, it’s safe to say that How to Walk Away is one of Juliana’s greatest albums. (Diane would remove “one of” as well as the “s” from “albums” in that sentence.) It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with her best works, including Bed (1998), Beautiful Creature (2000), in exile deo (2004) and Made in China (2005). If you’ve never heard it, give it a go. You’ll be hooked by the music at first listen and, by the second pass, will dig into the lyrics. It’s a masterful work that’s designed for repeated plays.

The track listing:

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