Song 323: Juliana Hatfield, “Universal Heart-Beat” (1995)

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I remember hearing “Universal Heart-Beat” for the first time and thinking it sounded strangely jazzy for a post-grunge song. And with its slinky electric piano paired with loud power chords, the song still sounds anachronistic. But wonderful.

I’ve had a soft spot for Juliana Hatfield ever since her work on the Lemonheads’ It’s A Shame About Ray. And we all know how great her big songs were, including “Spin the Bottle” from Reality Bites and “My Sister.” She has a knack for mixing sweetness and grit.

Speaking of which, “Universal Heart-Beat.” I love the contrast between the slinky electric piano and the raw, fierce-out-of-the-gate guitars on the chorus. In a way, it’s everything I love about mid-nineties rock music: it was simultaneously experimental and unabashedly accessible.

Which isn’t to say Juliana Hatfield has gone all Sonic Youth here. This is still post-grunge alt-rock, readymade for radio and MTV. But that accessibility, I think, is why the song is so effective. The lyrics are all about how dysfunction is part of the plan, how abnormality is, in fact, completely normal. Beauty can be sad, you’re proof of that; a heart that hurts is a heart that works. Discord is life.

I think Juliana Hatfield is vastly underrated. She’s continued to put out good work over the years, and her best-of compilation Gold Stars proves that her biggest hits weren’t flukes (try, for example, her biting cover of “Every Breath You Take”). Her voice may be high and soft, but her songs—and her guitar work—are anything but. It’s a fantastic combination.

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