The great irony of Juliana Hatfield's career is that the more confident she grows--as a guitarist, a songwriter, a singer, an adult--the less moving her work becomes. Her debut in 1992, Hey Babe, may have been a work of transition--the band member trying to find her solo voice, a child becoming an adult--but it was so wonderful because of its imperfections; Hatfield didn't pretend to have the answers, she didn't mask her emotions in oblique expression, and she didn't try to gloss over her hesitant mistakes. It was a sparse, tense celebration of sadness and innocence, the centerpiece being the eloquent "Nirvana," about the simple power of a pop song told in a simple pop song.
Three years later, her third solo album, Only Everything, is more like a declaration of independence. Hatfield turns up the guitar and cries out with her small and pretty voice--screaming where she once whispered, sneering where she once pouted, smiling where she once frowned. If her debut sounded like a woman about to fall apart--in an oft-quoted and offhanded remark, Hatfield once told a writer she considered suicide after the release of Hey Babe, so unhappy was she with the record--then Only Everything is the roar of a woman collecting the pieces.
The suddenly ubiquitous single, "Universal Heart-beat," with its catchy chorus of "a heart that hurts is a heart that works," almost celebrates pain--with a broken heart at least you feel something, she is saying. And "Dying Proof," its dull and dirty roar recalling fellow Bostonians Dinosaur Jr, is (or seems to be) about a woman walking away from an enervating, humiliating relationship ("You say, 'Look at me respectfully'/I can't," she sings). But maybe Hatfield's most appropriate lyric comes from the non-album track "Girl in Old Blue Volvo Disowns Self," in which she quotes HYsker DY's 1982 album title: "Everything falls apart," she insists, her voice tinged with the optimism that accompanies resignation.
Juliana Hatfield performs June 17 at Trees. Cold Water Flat opens.