A welcome return-to-form following the defensive, lo-fi wheeze of 2005’s generally unpleasant Made in China, Juliana Hatfield’s How to Walk Away is among the veteran alt-rock artist’s most consistent and focused albums. Whereas its predecessor infamously needed a rambling essay from Hatfield in its press kit to try to make a salient point, Walk Away has a singular theme that doesn’t overreach for relevance or insight. If not exactly the most high-minded of constructs, it’s a concept album that chronicles the various phases of a doomed relationship. That kind of angst falls right into Hatfield’s wheelhouse as a songwriter, and she’s able to drop deceptively loaded imagery into songs that initially present themselves as the type of indie-pop that, going as far back as 1992’s Hey Babe, she has always made fashionable. And to that end, Hatfield is often at her best here: The first line of opener “The Fact Remains” is, “I stayed until the Star Spangled Banner played/And I couldn’t keep my eyes open,” but it’s clear from the beginning, thanks to the minor-key arrangement and Hatfield’s melancholy delivery, that she’s not talking about any Olympic medal ceremony. On standout first single “My Baby…,” Hatfield sighs, “When he touches my body/There’s something off in the chemistry” before filling in the ellipses on the soulful, ‘70s AM-radio refrain, “Oh, my baby doesn’t love me anymore/I just know.” There’s an expert balance between the simplicity of these song structures and the depth of Hatfield’s lyrics that speaks to her maturity as a writer, which hasn’t always been the case over the course of her uneven solo career. With her most polished, accessible production since 2000’s slept-on Beautiful Creature and her ear for a memorable pop melody evident for the first time in years, Walk Away even stands to appeal to an audience beyond Hatfield’s devoted cult following. With a memoir, When I Grow Up, set for publication in September, the fact that she also has such a strong album to support could give Hatfield her highest profile since her days as a Buzz Bin pinup girl.
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