Artists don’t get much time to carve out an identity anymore. So it’s either fortunate or canny that Harriette Pilbeam—an Australian bassist and singer-songwriter who records as Hatchie—opens Sugar & Spice with a song that captures her aesthetic even before the vocals kick in. Like most of the record, “Sure” is a wide-eyed appeal to a lover that alternates between drowsy verses and honeyed choruses. The intro foregrounds an acoustic guitar melody that definitely recalls the riff on “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer. But first, Pilbeam efficiently codes the track as dream pop, opening with a buzz of feedback so short as to be almost imperceptible before diving in with a chiming bassline.
Hatchie’s version of dream pop is more pop than dream, using the airy vocals and coruscating guitars of her 4AD heroes in service of giddy love songs with massive hooks. This synthesis yielded her debut single, “Try,” which became a surprise hit on Australian radio station Triple J before appearing on the EP. Over guitar jangle and glittery bursts of synth, she reckons with a romance that has devolved into sinking feelings and sleepless nights. But just before Pilbeam resigns herself to conscious uncoupling, she starts ramping up to an exultant chorus: “I know you wanna try/I can feel it in your sigh.” In the context of relationship talk, the word “try” is about as sexy as couples therapy, yet Hatchie makes it sound like an adventure.
Most pop songs about love fall at one extreme on the timeline from infatuation to breakup, but Sugar & Spice obsesses over everything in between. On the title track, a tart guitar-and-drum passage cuts the sweetness of Pilbeam’s high-pitched vocals, as she worries that someone she’s still mad about seems to be losing interest, then dares him to soothe her uncertainty. As she does in the chorus of “Try,” Pilbeam underlines that sudden shift from anxiety to hopefulness with a vocal melody so addictive it almost feels malicious. If a similar attempt at an earworm on “Sugar & Spice” doesn’t land with the same ecstatic force, blame the hackneyed refrain: “You don’t call me ‘baby’ anymore.”
Pilbeam switches up her formula on the EP’s best track, “Sleep.” A sunshower of keyboard anchors the melody. The chorus swoops in before the 15-second mark, stacking the vocals in paper-thin layers. It’s an inspired production choice that makes the song immersive and weightless at once, setting precisely the right mood for a fantasy about meeting a sleeping lover in a dream and coaxing out of them all the things they’ve left unsaid in waking life.
When it comes to writing breathless love songs with hooks that rival those of alt-pop idols like Carly Rae Jepsen and Sky Ferreira—both of whom she’s cited as influences—Pilbeam is a prodigy. She recorded “Try” in college. Now, after releasing a debut EP on which three out of five tracks strongly resemble one another in style and subject matter, her challenge is to vary her songwriting without losing the infectiousness of her early singles or the dreamy tangles of guitar and bass that might have convinced Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins to remix “Sure.”
Her lyrics can sound like an afterthought. Sugar & Spice is as cliché-ridden as its title, all dreams, stars, and pregnant sighs. “I don’t think I’ve that many interesting life experiences yet,” Pilbeam recently told Pitchfork, explaining that she was in her first serious relationship (her boyfriend, Joe Agius, is her guitarist) and still needs to work on “how poetic my writing is as opposed to just explaining how I feel.”
This self-awareness is a good sign, but Pilbeam sounds more distinctive when she’s leaning into bluntness than when she’s reaching for the rarefied heights of poetry. Although it isn’t Hatchie’s most memorable song, the unadorned honesty of closing track “Bad Guy” is exhilarating: “I’m backwards/And I feel stupid/Watching you back away,” she sings. For the first time on Sugar & Spice, the realness of the lyrics resonates with the same force as the music. Sometimes heavenly sounds are most potent paired with words that tether them to the unpoetic push and pull of life on Earth.