On her previous half-dozen albums, Boston-based Juliana Hatfield has clearly defined her sexy-waif persona through a steady stream of confessional songs filled with vulnerability, uncertainty and a reckless disregard for doing what’s good for her. On her latest LP, Hatfield manifests a nascent desire to get her shit together as she struggles with various (I have no choice here but to whip out the rock-crit cliché) personal demons, ranging from an addictive need for validation through romance (manifested here on “Forever,” with its key line, “Just one more, then I’ll quit forever”) to the arduous search for artistic inspiration (succinctly expressed in “Don’t Let Me Down,” which finds her “looking for words at the end of the road”).
This is a promising turn of events for a writer/artist who has all but exhausted her cache of themes. But Hatfield’s first step in her quest for knowingness turns out to be a tentative one, despite the presence of some disarmingly plaintive songs. Part of the problem is Hatfield’s very facility as a songwriter: The catchy melodies and clever turns of phrase come so easily to her that she continues to settle for songs that merely hang together rather than taking herself—and the listener—somewhere new and unexpected. On “Sunshine,” for example, in which she means to express her optimism about personal growth, she pulls out standard-issue metaphors; the song’s central line, “I’m waking up and I want to stand in the sunshine,” probably wrote itself, but it’s so pat as to be inert. She also relies too heavily on choruses that simply repeat the same line rather than concocting more thematically complex and satisfying payoffs.
Hatfield perpetuates her career-long tendency to overwhelm her fragile-but-expressive voice with cranked-up rock arrangements topped by her own electric guitar, obscuring the nuances of her vocal performances. For In Exile Deo she’s assembled a group of players who display utter competence but no particular feel for the material, resulting in performances that frequently come off as arbitrary, and sometimes downright generic. The album begs for something more inventive, in the manner of Polly Jean Harvey or Aimee Mann. Hatfield produced the record; one can’t help but wonder what it might have been under the helm of a song-sensitive producer/player like Jon Brion, who’s done such inspired work with Mann.
Ironically, the album’s most affecting vocal performance appears in its lone cover, Dot Allison’s “Tomorrow Never Comes,” for which Hatfield provides a restrained and elegant setting, as a string quartet frames her strikingly intimate vocal and delicately fingerpicked acoustic guitar. If only the artist treated her own material with the same sensitivity. She gets tantalizingly close on the album’s most emotionally charged songs, the above-mentioned “Forever,” the post-breakup ballad “Some Rainy Sunday,” the touchingly insecure “Jamie’s in Town” and the heart-wrenching “Because We Love You,” a startlingly candid plea for reconciliation with her father.
Hatfield, an undeniably genuine artist, has created a record that is flawed but frequently brave and inviting. One can only hope that she’s on the way to expressing something altogether revelatory in her music; at the very least, In Exile Deo provides proof of her determination to get there and evidence that she has the means to pull it off.