Sometimes music doesn't fall through the cracks straight away. There are more than a few records and artists who make a splash then slip away quietly. “Become What You Are” by Juliana Hatfield is one of these records. For a few weeks in 1993 Juliana Hatfield, ex-bass player for indie pop band The Blake Babies, was the “it” girl of the, then booming, indie rock scene. She was all over magazines and MTV and her album was selling pretty well. But as so often happens, her fame declined, her follow ups didn't sell as well and a dispute with her label lead to one of her studio albums being left on the shelf after being completed (“God's Foot” is still in the archives at Atlantic as of 2010). Nowadays Juliana's success is not really remembered, even though she still gets covered by the American music press when she brings out a new album. Despite having fame pulled out from under her, she continued to make music and now records and releases her music on her own Ye Olde Records label. She has never made a better record than “Become What You Are” but her efforts have been consistently good. Her song writing has matured as has her voice, but it still retains the girlish quality that has always made her music charming. In some ways Juliana seems much more suited to the life of a hard working indie musician than a star. Her autobiography, “When I Grow Up”, gives the impression of a woman who loves music so much that she cant do anything else but is not completely prepared to expose her self as one needs to to be a star. Juliana Hatfield is an intelligent and complex person, not qualities that are really conducive to super-stardom. The music of “Become What You Are” is the same but with the pop sheen and sparkle that made it a brief hit in 1993.
The album opens with Super Model and you are immediately struck by how young Juliana's voice sounds. Her high pitched, girly vocals do a lot to give the album its pop feel, with their innocent charm that belies the bitterness of some of the lyrics. Super Model is a great example of this, with the first line being “The highest paid piece of ass. You know it’s not gonna last!” The song goes on with its disparaging comments about models and the high value placed on physical beauty but then Hatfield reveals that its really all just jealousy, “I wish she'd trade places with me”. This one track pretty much encapsulates the feeling of the whole album. It’s Pop rock with a girlish charm hiding a sourness and insecurity that, regardless of how far under the surface it’s tucked away, shines through.
One of the more interesting aspects of the record is the contrasts between light and dark. As I said before the lyrics are surprisingly bitter, especially when delivered with such sweetness. But the chord sequences and dynamic shifts in the songs contribute to that too. For example the first single off the album, My Sister has shimmering verses that lead into a distorted, tough sounding, minor chord bridge. Scott Litt's production makes the transitions between the two appear seamless and easy and the conflicting lyrics about both loving and hating her sister help the song further the sense of conflict. The pop sheen is there to disarm you and make what are ultimately rather dark songs accessible. For the Birds for example could potentially come across as dour and pretentious if it was a slow song but the youthful energy that’s instilled in it somehow makes it seem more earnest and easier to take in and as a result, it stands out as one of the best songs on the album.
For a singer with such a young sounding voice, almost none of the songs are overtly girly. There are tracks such as Spin The Bottle, where a crush is the central theme, but this is not a one trick album. Subjects range from things such as mental illness to Henry Rollins and the futility of life. The music asks to be taken for what it is, without any preconceived ideas. Juliana Hatfield, throughout her career has been put under the “women in rock” label. A pigeon hole she has been trying to escape from for a long time, with albums like this. These songs ask to be listened to as songs, not as songs by a woman. Which in 1993, when loud, all guy bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were what indie rock sounded like, was a pretty brave thing to do. Hatfield's songs are presented as they are, regardless of gender. There Is a whole other article to be written about the view of women in rock music but I will leave that for someone who has a much better understanding of such things.
I love this record. I love its honesty, its pure emotion. I love the guitar lines, the composition of the songs and the melodies. Everything about this album seems to fall into place for me. It is the perfect blend of pop and indie rock. Juliana Hatfield has said that some of her biggest influences are Dinosaur Jr, The Replacements, Husker Du and Olivia Newton John and I can hear them in her music throughout her career (Side Note: her cover of Raisins by Dinosaur Jr is worth tracking down). For me however, it’s on this album that this combination of Punk and Pop is at its finest and I think it serves as a brilliant introduction to Juliana Hatfield’s catalogue.