Liz Stands Tall on Witty, Honest New album
Liz Phair has given birth to a pop-rock gem.
whitechocolatespaceegg, her first full-length album since 1994’s Whip-Smart, is chockablock with hook-filled songs that are as much about her evolving sense of romantic (and other) relationships as her evolving relationship with rock music in general.
When Phair’s debut LP, Exile in Guyville hit in 1993 — a fully evolved animal, like Athena popping out of Zeus’ forehead — it quickly established Phair as rockdom’s “It” girl with a brain. Sexually frank, unflinching yet unhysterical in its depictions of emotional extremes, the album was a lights-on update of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and provided a dynamic reworking of rock’s romantic myths.
Despite the record’s complexity, critical writing on Exile in Guyville often concentrated on Phair’s middle-class upbringing and her desire to be “your blow-job queen.” (“Woo hoo, I can bring her home to Mom AND she’ll be my dog!”) Anyone who continued to listen to the record found these elements the least compelling parts of Exile.
The album contains great guitar, spare but assured songs and a clear voice that made every conversational utterance memorable. And it alluded to the Stones at their most decadent, always a good sign. I’m not sure if, in the classic rock ‘n’ roll transference, anyone wanted to be Liz Phair after Exile, but plenty of people felt like they knew her, or had been in her shoes, or wanted to be her friend. Or her boyfriend.
With Whip-Smart, Phair fleshed out some of the arrangements and sent her shifting songs down more side streets; the album was ultimately a disappointment after Exile. Chronicling the rise and fall of a relationship, it featured some individually great tracks without having Exile‘s coherence or sonic immediacy.
Four years later, spaceegg finds Phair for the most part maintaining her lyrical directness, while embracing a purer pop sound; the music shines throughout, and goes down a lot easier than that on Exile (so to speak). Where Exile (and the girlysound tracks on the Juvenilia EP) felt closed and incredibly private, spaceegg feels wide open.
Part of the openness is due to Phair’s expanded musical range. The eerie piano of “Canary” on Exile and “Chopsticks” on Whip-Smart, for example, has been replaced by a chirping organ.
Drawing on hooks that send the musical mind reeling — shades of the Eagles, Stones, Beatles, Zep, Beach Boys, is that Abba? — the tunes recall some of the finest moments of ’70s and ’80s pop, and sent me back to my dusty vinyl collection to dig up LPs I hadn’t heard in years: Big Star’s Radio City, Aztec Camera.
The album’s first single, “Johnny Feelgood,” sounds instantly familiar; Johnny could be Aretha’s Dr. Feelgood in medical school, still working on getting his love degree. Over a “Mesmerizing”-esque guitar riff, Phair sings “he knocked me down, started dragging me around in the back of his convertible car/ … and I liked it, I liked it more and more.”
No less complex in its description of the way love (or sex) makes us feel and act than anything on Exile, its winning groove makes it hard for us to resist “Johnny” ‘s charms, however wary we may be.
When Phair quotes “It’s Only Rock & Roll” toward the end of the song — a drawn-out, near-whispered “I liked it” — the song’s meaning explodes, and we’re hearing all of rock history; fandom and lust and abandon and degradation and worship.
Of course, now that Phair is married and a mother in real life, it is perhaps no surprise that other visions of love and responsibility appear in her songs. Two of the sweetest on the album describe more stable romantic situations. A perfect couplet from the lilting “Love is Nothing” has it that “love is nothing, nothing, nothing like they say/ you’ve got to pick up all of the pieces every day.” In “Go on Ahead,” she grants her partner the license to disappear for a while.
Other songs find Phair trying on different viewpoints; that of a big tall man (“Big Tall Man”), of a son leaving home before causing any more damage to his family (“Only Son”) and of both a mother and daughter, talking by phone about the daughter’s life choices (“What Makes You Happy”). These songs are delivered with the same intimacy as Phair’s first-person-singular work, but the changes in narrator make the album feel more spacious. Perhaps tellingly, in the tempo-shifting “What Makes You Happy,” the mother gets the rocking bits, the daughter the quiet parts.
Sonically, we’re far from the girlysound cassettes, although girlysound aficionados will recognize at least one here, a re-worked “Money.” In the title track, Phair sings that she doesn’t need money. In “Shitloads of Money,” the singer suggests that those who claim they don’t need it are fooling themselves. Which is it? As Phair sings in the acoustic ballad “Perfect World,” “I was born to lead a double life.” It’s both.
The song continues: “I want to be cool, tall, vulnerable and luscious” — the definition of a pop star. Vulnerable, so we can identify; cool, tall and luscious, so we can dream. It’s possible that more people will want to be (or will imagine that they are) the ever-engaging and witty Phair after hearing spaceegg.
In a conversation with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon in the August issue of Pulse! magazine (the Tower Records organ), Phair says, “For me, it’s really sappy, but I just want to make people happy, I want to make them feel the way I feel when I listen to music.” I don’t know how Phair feels when she listens to music, but when I hear hers, I’m happy.
By Jeffrey Golick