Listening to Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police, Bostonian punk-adjacent rocker Juliana Hatfield’s second release of 2019, is like listening to yourself singing The Police while riding in the car with you friends, except none of you are Juliana Hatfield, only half of you actually remember the lyrics to each of the songs and, unless you’re Jimmy Fallon, you don’t have a band backing you up as you belt out and mangle the classics. So really, it’s not at all like listening to yourself singing The Police, which is a relief; it’s a good enough time just listening to Hatfield pay tribute to one of rock’s greatest bands in her own particular way.
There’s likely to be division in the cover album’s reception, though Hatfield’s audience and her critics all appeared to agree on her previous cover record, the similarly monikered Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John. There’s a joy in hearing established contemporary artists re-visit their own influences, after all: mining the music that inspired them to write and record and perform, an exploratory effort at discovering just what effect those influences had on them on a fundamental, maybe invisible, level. Police partisans might read Hatfield’s treatment of tracks like “Next to You,” “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” and “Every Breath You Take” as especially distasteful, verging on sacrilegious; Hatfield devotees might rankle at yet another cover album, but at least they can content themselves with January’s Weird.
In either hypothetical case, the complainants should keep their kvetching to themselves. Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police has an idea, and it follows that idea to the very end of its duration, retranslating The Police into Hatfield’s modernized language, a smorgasbord of styles that range from chirpy pop-rock to fuzzed-up, rapid fire punk; each song is fed through her voluminous discography and made afresh. You will not at any point feel like you’re hearing The Police for the first time while Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police streams on your laptop, but you will feel like you’re hearing them from a new angle.
“Oh can’t you see / You belong to me / My poor heart aches / With every step you take,” Hatfield hums, and suddenly Sting’s multilayered meaning calcifies into the sweet and romantic ode he’d intended it to be. Hatfield lacks the baggage (his divorce from Frances Tomelty) burdening Sting at the time he wrote “Every Breath You Take.” Not so for Hatfield. She gets to sing it her way on her terms: as a fan of The Police, of course, but also as an accomplished musician with a soft spot for The Police. It’s not impossible to read her rendition as a creeper’s oath, but that read is minimized by Hatfield’s perspective.
In contrast to softened edges, there’s “Rehumanize Yourself,” a sharp song that’s keener in 2019, when police brutality and white nationalist violence remain cultural staples of American life. (Granted that in 1981, Sting was singing about the United Kingdom, but artistic intentions are malleable). Cops feel as secure with their hands on their holsters today as they did 38 years ago, maybe more so, all while hate crimes are on the rise. Hatfield doesn’t change the song’s framing, but she does cast it under contemporary light, a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay every bit as awful as they were decades ago. Good thing she wraps the music up in upbeat, cheery strumming at a tempo to invite dancing—shimmy the white supremacy away!
Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police is an experiment, and maybe as such it’ll be deemed less worthy, less interesting, than Weird. But where Weird is good, Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police is engrossing, an act of pop cultural interrogation for its own sake. What does Hatfield gain from touring through The Police’s discography? What do we gain from listening? An original take on music that helped change music, perhaps, though if nothing else, at least she’s playing the hits.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.