Liz Phair’s songs have always been highly personal if not necessarily autobiographical. The aura of the nice suburban girl with the potty mouth served her so well for her brilliant 1993 album, Exile in Guyville, that it probably always will be the defining characteristic for many fans.
But her latest release, the oddly titled whitechocolatespaceegg, shows that Miss Phair, no longer an unbridled twentysomething but now, at 31, a wife and mother, has grown as an artist as well as a woman.
Usually when my albums are good, and I hope that by the time we’re finished with them they are, they should represent where I was at a particular time,” Miss Phair said during a recent interview. “They’re timepieces, things to look back on. They’re bodies of work marking periods of my life.”
While the unblushing blunt Guyville is hailed as the forerunner of work by today’s “bold” female singer-songwriters, beneath its dirty words and harsh exterior lurk some devastatingly pointed observations on love and sex from a female perspective as well as from an individual point of view.
Whether pointing out the foibles and poses of the male of the species in songs such as “Soap Star Joe” and “Johnny Sunshine” or indulging in naughty fantasies a la “Flower” or “Dance of the Seven Veils”, she infused a sense of personal journey into the songs. This feeling is best embodied by one memorable tune, which will go unnamed, in which a protagonist weary of casual sex worries that “I can feel it in my bones / I’m gonna spend my whole life alone”.
Miss Phair followed that with 1994’s Whip-Smart, an oft-maligned album that arguably contains some of her best work, especially moment-capturing gems such as “Chopsticks” and the achingly beautiful “Nashville”. In the latter song, she muses on love, saying, “I’m starting to think it can happen to me” and vowing, “I won’t decorate my love”. The album is more slickly produced than the sparse Guyville but doesn’t stray too far from the traditional Liz Phair song style.
Following perfectly along this trajectory, despite the almost four-year gap, is whitechocolatespaceegg. The lyrics are more mature and the songs more layered than many of her previous offerings, but the album, once again is exceptionally Phair.
I feel confident that my songwriting has followed a pretty steady progression,” Miss Phair says. “I listen to some of my older stuff, songs from the Girly Sound tapes (her first recordings, which led to Exile in Guyville) that I’d completely forgotten about, and I feel a continuity between that person and who I am now.”
If the album’s first radio single, Miss Phair says, “‘Polyester Bride’ is so about what I’m going through right now, that whole ‘don’t get caught up in success thing’. Because I’m a mother and a wife now, too.”
It’s also an excellent example of how a Phair song can ring personal without being strictly autobiographical. The song describes a woman sitting in a bar talking to the bartender and wondering “if I should bother dating unfamous men / And Henry said, ‘You’re lucky to even know me / You’re lucky to be alive / You’re lucky to be drinking here for free because I’m a sucker fro your lucky, pretty eyes’.”
Miss Phair says she tries to bring out the spirit of a moment, not detail it. “I want people to experience what I’m feeling at a given time, like say during a fight with a boyfriend as opposed to, ‘I yelled, then he yelled, then a door slammed.’ . . . The point of any good song is how you feel.”
Other songs on the album talk about permanent love, such as that of a husband and wife in “Go on Ahead” or an imperfect song in the stellar “Only Son”. The picture painted, however, is not the happy one that might be expected.
“Perfect World” moans that “home is very ordinary” and finds Miss Phair wanting to be “cool, tall, vulnerable and luscious”. “Love is Nothing” describes how hard and often mundane a committed relationship can be, pointing out that “love is nothing, nothing, nothing like they say / You gotta pick up the little pieces every day”.
Miss Phair best explains the natural progression of her musical life span by borrowing a quote from drummer Blackie Onassis of the Chicago band Urge Overkill, who once said a band’s first album is for its small group, the second for a larger audience and the third for everybody.
“Exile was for my small circle, these indie guys in Chicago who always controlled the stereo. I had a two-mile radius in mind. And Whip-Smart was for a larger audience. The second one you’re totally obsessed with — how will the public receive this song?” she says.
“What I learned about the third album is that you really make it for yourself.”
But what about that long layoff between albums?
“I learned so much in my time away that allowed me to say ‘Hey, I really want to do this, regardless of how people feel about it.'”
By Joe Schaeffer
The Washington Times, October 4, 1998