Juliana Hatfield is something of an indie pop survivor. In the 20 (yes, 20) years since the dissolution of the Blake Babies, she has continued plugging her huskily sweet, solo-girl pop on any label that will have her. The long years of label-hopping have perhaps led us to this point: the self-released (on Hatfield’s Ye Olde imprint), fan-funded There’s Always Another Girl.
See, it’s kind of wishful thinking that an artist whose entire career is based on faux-confessional songs delivered in a gentle tone will reinvent herself, PJ Harvey-style, for an album outside of label control. Instead There’s Always Another Girl (formerly known as Speeches Delivered to Animals and Plants) is an album that could sit comfortably at any point in Hatfield’s career. Sweet, jangly guitars and acid-etched girl-vs.-the-world lyrics are hardly unique to the Juliana Hatfield sound, but her wide-eyed girlish shtick is wearing a bit thin for an artist comfortably in her 40s. Despite some concessions to modern production (a goofy synth/organ line on “Candy Wrappers” or the too-nice squall of ‘noise’ at the end of “Taxicab” or start of “Batteries”), there’s nothing here. It’s the teeth-aching worthiness here that does the listener in — a vegan cafe open mic night ingenuousness that would actually be easier to explain if the album referenced any of the animal-protection overtones hinted at in the pre-release press. Instead, these songs about lonely girls and failed love simply grate. Nothing stands out, nothing pushes the barriers of Hatfield’s creative output. “Failure,” with its miserable reverb and frustrating repetition of the title (much like entirely similar “Vagabond”), squats in the middle of the album without managing to define it in any way.
The composition and production on display here is competent — rendering it a cut above open-mic-night worthiness — and perhaps the 90s-revival market has a place for an album by one of its quintessential artists (or in fact anyone with a track on the Reality Bites soundtrack). But there’s not enough here to make this different than any randomly-chosen moment from Juliana Hatfield’s career. For an artist who, for at least a time, was a poster-child for indie pop womanhood, there should be something more substantial here. In a time where it is possible for acts who made their careers in that early-90s cauldron of independent creativity to reform and remake themselves, it seems a cop-out to make such a risk-free album, especially since Hatfield had full creative control. Fan-funding could liberate, rather than stifle, even allowing experimentation; there’s no boss to please, only fans to engage. But that doesn’t happen at any point on There’s Always Another Girl. Just more of the same. By the time we get to “And Again,” in the album’s second half, it’s precisely that: And again.