Felix Hatfield’s Boundaries

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Felix Hatfield’s approach to music is so deceptively unstudied, so casual, that, to the unschooled listener, it might hide his mastery. But this dude is a Songwriter – capitalization very much intended – by which I mean he’s someone who has made the discipline of songwriting, the effort to find the perfect alchemical synthesis between text, tune and tone, his life’s work. The immense amount of time he’s put into this work pays huge dividends on his new record, Boundaries.

I know Felix a little bit – full disclosure, I guess – and when I saw him perform this record in its entirety (incidentally, for an audience of bears, and not the animal), I told him afterwards that it was his Blood on the Tracks. As a Dylan obsessive, I am very much aware of the import of the comparison, and I stand by it.

But this is Felix Hatfield’s Blood on the Tracks, and Felix Hatfield is his own beast (or many beasts: on this record, he becomes a dog, a cat, a lion, a mouse, and a jellybean). The similarity to Blood on the Tracks is that Boundaries is a concept album about a doomed relationship, intricately crafted by a great writer. But Felix’s emotional approach is different from Dylan’s. The Bard’s trademark rage and venom are mostly absent. It’s hard to put a finger on Felix’s emotional tone, but it’s something like a whimsical melancholy, a self-lacerating good humor, and a wise and witty sadness.

There is, no doubt, a lot of genuine sorrow that went into this record, and probably some real darkness, but it is never sad to listen to. It makes you laugh, tear up a little, and, mostly, reflect – on yourself, on the nature of love and sex, and, if you’re a songwriter, on how the hell he pulls off some of these lyrical stunts.

His lyrics are so good that the temptation is to simply quote them at length, but I’d rather you just bought the record. The first song, “Boundaries,” sets the tone immediately, and in its quiet way, it’s a powerhouse piece of work: half narrative, half internal snapshot, strung together with a nimble fingerpicked chord progression that reminds you of half a dozen folk classics without copying any of them.

Felix sings:

It’s not quite unrequited.

You say you like me good as any.

But I can’t say I’m delighted

to feel like one of many.

The “quite” rings like a little bell against the other “quite” hidden in “unrequited,” and Felix follows it up with a line that gives context: his love isn’t unrequited – it’s requited, just not very much. How does this make him feel? Not delighted. So good. Right here you get a sense of the characters he develops on this album – himself and his unnamed, captivating, promiscuous lover – and from this track on, these two characters unfold with the depth you usually find in novels, and only occasionally on records.

There’s a little bit of Jonathan Richman or Robyn Hitchcock in his lyrical approach, in the sense that very precise, writerly lyrics are sometimes followed by surreal or goofy lines. The effect is to keep the listener on his or her toes, never certain whether to laugh or to cry, never certain if the next line will follow up the thought from the line before, take a hard turn, or even backtrack to a line from a previous song. (“The Day I Cried In Your Car” references “I Love You Blues”; Felix is, briefly, a lion in “Car,” an idea explored at length in the later track, “Lion”). As a listener, this feeling of never knowing what’s coming next is one of the things I look for in songwriters. Felix delivers it, in spades.

The delicate balance here is of comedy and tragedy, and it’s a tough balance to strike. But with his laconic, dry vocal delivery, and his air of unhurried wistfulness, he gives the impression that he can take the most painful situations and, with time, transmute them into art that comes with a handshake and a wry smile. It’s like he’s saying, “Yeah, it hurt like hell, but I’m not here to make you suffer. Let me tell you what I learned.”

Musically, you get the melodic fingerpicking of early Dylan mixed with a heavy dose of ragtime, jug band, and old-time guitar styles, which, played clean in a close-mic’ed, clear mix, sound fresh and utterly suited to tales of modern love that reference the “friend zone” and thrift store shopping. There are no other instruments, besides a little harmonica on “I Love You Blues,” the best rewrite of a jug band staple since The Lovin’ Spoonful made it their bread and butter.

The last few tracks delve increasingly deep into the subject of sex, and it is refreshing to hear this topic tackled with the humor, good-nature, and honesty that Felix brings to it. Sex in popular song tends to be either hopelessly raunchy or hopelessly over-romanticized, but sex in real life is complicated, dangerous and fun, all of which it is in Felix’s songs. Moreover the male heterosexual viewpoint has been done to death, but rarely have I heard it explored it with this kind of honesty and detail.

In “Take Care of That Ass, Darling,” he longingly pines for the body of his former lover, while – well, I’ll let Felix tell it:

There’s peace within you or without you

but you know what piece I’d rather ride.

Take care of that ass, darling.

It’s a holy place.

Take care of that ass, darling.

it’s been on my … mind.

The old switcheroo at the end there. No one does that anymore. I love it.

“Lion” is a great song, a little bit like the old rock standard “Little Red Riding Hood” in the way it playfully teases out the hunter vs. hunted dynamic in sexuality, without being genuinely threatening, and the minor-key melody is authentically sexy. He sings:

I want to sink my teeth in

like I used to do.

It don’t have to be love

for it to be true.

Let’s not complicate it.

Here’s to simplifying.

I’m not looking for love.

I just want to be your lion.

The last tune, “Sex Addiction,” pulls off the neat trick, indicative of Felix’s songwriting prowess, of being both the saddest and the funniest song on the record. In it, Felix bemoans his lover’s penchant for … other lovers, with lines like, “I never wished so hard I had a stranger’s face.” The criticism of her promiscuity could read as Puritanical or sexist in other hands, but the self-criticism Felix subjects himself to throughout the record effectively immunizes him from these charges. Striving for emotional honesty, he isn’t afraid to say, “Hey, this shit is hard.” Within the one song he accuses of her being a sex addict, questions whether there is such a thing as sex addiction, take a long hard look at himself, and, mostly, just admits that he is “starved for {her} passion,” and just plain misses her.

And he forgets to buy cat food. It’s the real shit, like everything on “Boundaries.”

My favorite song on here is “Roll On,” which has the power of a credo:

Sing me a good one. I can’t stay long.

It’s either crawl in a hole or roll on.

Long may Felix Hatfield roll on.

Bandcamp: https://felixhatfieldlibrary.bandcamp.com

Sex Addiction video: https://youtu.be/QLcxovskf4Y

iTuneshttp://apple.co/2cWrg05

Google Playhttp://bit.ly/2dCXegh
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