Sexual awakening as both fact and poetic effigy has stoked the arts since the twinkling of human self-awareness. And rock’n’roll has been the favored forum in recent decades for youthful fertility’s most intense public representations.
“I’ve always found that people are very concerned with erasing from their memory the parts of their life where they feel fragile or defeated,” says singer/songwriter Liz Phair, whose ethereally explicit compositions on her Exile In Guyville debut (Matador, due May 17) employs the protocols of puberty to evoke the mysteries of sex and socialization. “There should be a finishing school for human relationships, to understand why you have these urges and what they mean, because life is about experiencing emotions.”
“My own life is just one long thread of mischievousness,” adds the Chicago-based Phair, who giggles easily and often. Especially when divulging that her official Matador bio — describing a skin-diving neurologist dad, a mom in the diplomatic corps who read aloud to her daughter from Henry Miller’s “Sexus”, and Liz’s own rebellious involvement with both Scientology and a beau who was a hazardous waste engineer — is “all made-up garbage I got talked into!”
Adopted in infancy, the 26-year-old Phair is actually (or so she insists) the daughter of Dr. John Phair, chief of Infectious Diseases at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and wife Nancy, a historian in the museology department at the Art Institute of Chicago. Phair calls her parents “warm, honest, and intelligent” and states that she “dragged them through living hell from eighth grade onward,” this protracted cycle of turmoil peaking just prior to her hard-won graduation from Oberlin College (“Oberlin takes people who are creative and in crisis, or look like they’re going to be.”)
If surviving higher education settled much of Phair’s psychic hash, the decision in the ’90s to issue her affectionately uncouth songs on the cassette-only GirlySound label (the first collection was called Yo Yo Buddy Yup Yup Word To Your Mother) earned the Matador contract.
Exile In Guyville was cut last year at Chicago’s popular Idful Studios as a co-production with former Shrimp Boat drummer/bassist Brad Wood. While Phair calls live performing “brutally, mortally embarrassing,” she was convinced the slatternly glow of her “quasi-slutty” pop was coalescing when she saw “Brad cracking up with laughter in the control room.”
“I’m very female,” says the slim, winsome Phair, “and I go with it, but too often you can go for something and then find yourself inexplicably diverted from your goal. I was definitely a late virgin — I didn’t lose my virginity until college — but the truth is we’re taught very early that sex is not about who you are and what you want, but how other people will perceive those issues.”
This is turbid creative terrain that artists such as Prince have spent their careers trying to penetrate. As a fallen Episcopalian, Phair doesn’t seek transcendence through carnality, though — just a solid understanding of its consolations. That Phair soars where the sovereign of Glam Slam has lately stumbled is owed to her touching humility — principally the mettle to admit the loneliness that makes desire so debilitating — on tracks like “Flower” and “Fuck And Run”. The former song is a bare-mattress offertory (“Every time I see your face/I think of things unpure, unchaste…/Everything you ever wanted/Everything you ever thought of/Is everything I’ll do to you…”) that makes Prince’s dirty mind seem like a prelate’s Mass missal, while the latter song is a museful miscellany of drum beats, Fender Duo-sonic riffs, and slapped tambourine that ascends to the achingly alarmed refrain: “I can feel it in my bones/I’m gonna spend another year alone.”
With a pleasing vocal assonance midway between the trilling surrender of Judee Sill and the skewed pastorals of Miranda Sex Garden, Phair reports on the deliciously broody inclinations of the heart vs. the libido. The deeply vulnerable motifs are undogmatic and justly disturbing in their unconstrained aural caress, as when the singer responds to a bedmate’s morning-after insincerity by stage-murmuring: “I heard the rust in your head.”
“America has a way of disconnecting you from sexuality from the beginning, making you think you have to perform,” says Phair, “so that when you finally achieve a sex life, you find yourself at a loss to comprehend what’s going on. If our culture embraced sex rather than rejected it as a danger, at least you’d have a connection to your feelings once you have them. Instead, we wind up war-torn, as if we blew a qualifying heat in a weird athletic event.”
While Phair is ingenious at restoring sex and other ceremonies of self-revelation to an ordinary, freshly affecting scale (“Whatever happened to a boyfriend/The kind of guy who tries to win you over?”), she assembles her material on such topics the way Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello constructs his gape-inducing solos: with a genre- and structure-shifting knack that borders on sorcery. That the vast range of prurient psalms in Exile In Guyville truly adheres is due to the austere recording recipe employed by Phair and Wood, the album’s ingredients so close to the basic household acoustics of instrumental/vocal rumination that listeners may wonder if the songs aren’t demos of their own soul-kitchen subconscious. There’s a touch of Circe in Phair’s singing too, her fragile gifts far greater than her urge to apply them, the emphasis more on extemporaneous force than tonal refinement.
“I fixed on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street,” she explains, “and treated it like a thesis, compiling the songs I’d written years before I ever heard that Stones album, which worked best as coincident parallels. The term ‘Guyville’ comes from a song of the same nambe by Urge Overkill. For me, Guyville is a concept that combines the smalltown mentality of a 500-person Knawbone, Ky.-type town with the Wicker Park indie music scene in Chicago, plus the isolation of every place I’ve lived in, from Cincinnati to Winnetka.”
The record opens with the endearingly off-balance “6’1″”, swerves into the assured throb of “Help Me, Mary”, recedes for the solemn whisper of “Glory” and the impishly pretty “Dance Of The Seven Veils” (which manages to drop such delicate asides as “Johnny my love… I’m a real cunt in spring”), and then leaps into the palatially pounding first single “Never Said”, followed by the funny “Soap Star Joe”, forlorn “Explain It To Me”, etc. — the full gamut, feeling as unimpeded as a great conversation.
“To be able to share things which are extremely private requires either the grace of a natural performer or the willingness to beat the shit out of yourself,” Phair notes with a final simper. “It’s a second puberty, a passage unlike any other.” And by the end of Phair’s courageous 18-song rite of displacement and restoration, there’s no doubt she’s led alternative rock’s postpunk ’90s naturalism to a captivating new pinnacle.
By Timothy White
Billboard, May 8, 1993