Bikini Kill were the best punk band of the 1990s — catchy, playful, hostile, and righteous — and their motormouthed frontwoman Kathleen Hanna exited the decade as the patron saint of radical-feminist rock stars. But Hanna hasn’t released a great album since 1999, when her cheerful electroclash project Le Tigre turned out to have as evergreen a self-titled party-record debut in them as Madonna. (Le Tigre subbed restless, questioning politics for Madonna’s sunny escapism, but both records make you as happy, about as efficiently, as you’re going to get.)
Several worrisome, illness-plagued years after Hanna announced the revival of her 1998 solo moniker, Julie Ruin, in 2013 — this time with a four-piece band including Bikini Kill bassist Kathi Wilcox — the newly definite-articled the Julie Ruin finally replaced Le Tigre’s staticky beats with the merry fuzz of garage pop-punk. But the idea was the same: to set Hanna’s double-dutch melodies in frames that welcome those frightened off by early Bikini Kill’s frenzied squall. Some songs climax in a giddy keyboard froth; others in one of those unbroken sections of Kathleen Hanna vowel-sounds, like a jogger breaking into a sprint. Distorted blasts like the new “Be Nice” recall Hanna and Wilcox’s old tumult, but for the most part this is warm, bouncy indie rock.
Despite this — and despite press rumblings to the most-personal-record-ever effect — Hanna’s lyrics haven’t softened. For one thing, they were always softer (funnier, more personal, more honestly confused) than was implied by the barbed-wire snarl of Bikini Kill’s guitars, or by the outrage of boys in bewildered exile from the front. A ragged early song like 1992’s “Carnival” wrings laughs out of its childish enthusiasm for a grimly sordid place, a mournful late one like 1996’s “R.I.P.” could hardly be rawer, and signature ’93 masterpiece “Rebel Girl” is an anthem of feminist solidarity to the same extent that it’s a song about really admiring a neighbor’s tricycle.
The Julie Ruin’s second full-band album, Hit Reset, slides with similar grace between the personal and political — between funny (or sad) polemic, and sad (or funny) pop romance. The throbbing, Wilcox-driven “I Decide” — which lists things Kathleen Hanna “might” do, but attaches no such qualifier to the chorus, in which she definitely decides — is part manifesto, part disclaimer. You could sing it in defiance while occupying your statehouse, but it could also be about the same relationship as “Rather Not,” which in melody and mordant humor is pretty much a Magnetic Fields song. (Chorus: “And if you really love me / I’d really, really rather not know.”)
“Mr. So and So,” meanwhile, is unavoidably political — it’s a precision death-ray fired at the Bikini Kill fanboy in your women’s studies class whose performance of feminist enlightenment seems, ah, less than wholesome — but it’s also pettily personal in such extensive detail (the Sleater-Kinney T-shirt mention would be where this privileged male reviewer got uncomfortable) that it pulls off a similar shift. Lots here does. If Hit Reset is the most open Hanna’s ever been about herself, it’s not because she let the rest of the world off the hook.
Maybe the album has one song too many — though 40 more minutes after an ailing legend’s nine-year sabbatical isn’t exactly an indulgent sprawl. Maybe it doesn’t have as many strange surprises in the back half as Le Tigre — though it does have a closing piano ballad that’s at once the most wrenching thing on the album and the most Britney-esque. Maybe “I Decide” and “I’m Done” flirt too brazenly with having the same hook.
But let’s put cards on the table, political and personal: We have missed Kathleen Hanna’s squeaky holler so much that even if America hadn’t woken up the other day to find a nascent fascist movement (and the usual attendant cult of self-pitying masculinity) metastasizing in its bowels; even if women’s rights weren’t buckling under decades of siege; even if the new barons of an ascendant tech culture didn’t seem to still be furious over prom; even if everything was totally fine — Hanna’s precise, goofily prim intonation of “I can play electric guitar / While shaving my legs in a moving car” would be all we needed to determine that another near-decade without her would have been incredibly dangerous. Please stay.