REVIEW: Juliana Hatfield, Only Everything (Atlantic/Mammoth)
- Jon Steltenpohl
From the very first seconds of Only Everything, my worst fears were confirmed: Juliana Hatfield is still trying to be Dinosaur Jr. Ever since the break up of Blake Babies, Hatfield has been veering to the slacker guitar sound. Buzzing guitars and lazy solos dominate Only Everything, and the transition from J. Hatfield to Ms. Dinosaur the Third is nearly complete. Fortunately, Hatfield knows what she's doing, and the slacker sound works for her.
In the past, Hatfield's music was often quiet and sweet sounding. Her voice carried a fragility in it that was misleading. But now, there is a bit of a sneer in her voice. Some of the songs on Only Everything begin with a whisper, and, instead of backing down when the lyrics get intense, Hatfield strikes back with her guitar. She slashes out buzzing riffs and grating solos as if she were possessed by J. Mascis himself. Hatfield still has her quieter moments, but those are usually just the choruses between the verses.
Fans will just have to accept that the sweet, innocent Juliana of Blake Babies has finally grown-up. You won't find many self-absorbed, pity songs like "Ugly" on Only Everything. In fact, Hatfield's knack for penning self-indulgent songs is practically gone. It only appears briefly with songs like "Live on Tomorrow" and "Outsider". Maybe she decided to start listening to some of the overly negative critics who labeled her lyrics a little too childish and naive. Or maybe Hatfield has just gotten a bit more serious and cynical with age.
In "Dying Proof", she writes as the friend of a junkie who she finds "turned blue". Instead of reaching out to help, the friend finally gives up and says "it's so hard to care what you do.". This is a far cry from past Hatfield lyrics about her sister and spin the bottle. "Dumb Fun" ends with the words of the cynical sage, "Hate your job. Love your stuff. If you think that's living then you're wrong, wrong, wrong."
"Universal Heartbeat" might seem like a nice little song from the title. And, if you don't pay attention to the lyrics, it's a peppy little tune. You'll be bobbing your head along and singing along to the chorus. But after a bit, you'll realize that the peppy chorus is actually "A heart that hurts is a heart that works." Whee!
Old fans might be a bit disappointed with Hatfield's new sound, but after a few listens, the harder edge will grow on you. Where some of Hatfield's older work lost it's impact on multiple spins through the CD player, Only Everything is a solid, consistent effort. It comes alive when played loud. Hatfield's voice and multi-track harmony are mixed in just right with the guitar, bass, and drums, and the wall of sound is both sloppy and pristine at the same time. One might even describe the sonics as bombastic. Only a few bands have mastered this slacker sound, and now Hatfield joins them.
Only Everything will fit great in your collection between The Breeders and Dinosaur Jr. Even though Only Everything is a bit of a departure from her old stuff, it's still Juliana Hatfield. She still writes a great song (whether it's self-indulgent or not), and she can play slacker guitar with the best of them. Old fans might even find that Hatfield's new confidence is refreshing. It's as if she's finally decided to stand up to her own self image. Only Everything may not break new musical ground, but it is Juliana Hatfield's best work since going solo.