By Rob Clark
The Dallas Morning News, August 1, 2003
It’s a long fall from critic’s darling to whipping girl. Liz Phair could write a thesis on both.
She was indie rock’s shining new hope a decade ago. The Chicago singer-songwriter gave the world “Exile in Guyville”, a bold and sexual album that was a response of sorts to the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street”.
It was hailed as an instant classic.
Two more strong efforts (“Whip-Smart” and “Whitechocolatespaceegg”) kept critics and fans salivating for more. Rolling Stone even proclaimed “A Rock `n’ Roll Star Is Born” on its cover. But with her fourth album, titled simply “Liz Phair”, she’s taking a beating.
The new disc, released in late June, is a calculated move to score a pop hit. It’s brassy and polished, a glossy sheen unseen on her other albums. She’s unapologetic about wanting that radio smash and isn’t so concerned about indie cred anymore.
“Liz Phair” isn’t her best album, but it is entertaining and has its moments of greatness. Her move toward the mainstream is digestible because she hasn’t lost too much of herself in the trip. Buff away just a bit of that shine, and there’s still enough “Liz” there to make it worthwhile.
By enlisting the Matrix — the production team behind the hits by young rocker Avril Lavigne — Phair, 36, has invited the wrath of some critics who once championed her, and perhaps alienated some fans who follow her. A few reviews read as if Phair has betrayed them personally by her new direction.
“It’s frustrating when you’re being attacked,” she says by phone from her home in Los Angeles, “because they act like I didn’t make ‘Guyville’. Like they own ‘Guyville’. It’s weird because I’m very attached to that record and really proud of it. But I’m not the person I was, and I don’t make that kind of music exactly that way anymore.”
Working with the Matrix was a way for the new album to have “more exuberance,” she says. “I needed something more raucous, more upbeat. ‘Cause there’s a lot of me that is that.”
That sound had yet to emerge in her songs for the album. Among the Matrix’s results are “Extraordinary”, a slick tune that’s tailor-made for radio with a going-for-it-all chorus. Ditto the first single, “Why Can’t I”, which sounds similar to Lavigne’s hit “Complicated”.
But there is more to “Liz Phair” than the big bid for pop fame. Her humor is intact, as always: “Favorite” uses an old, frayed pair of underwear as a metaphor for a relationship. And “H.W.C.” is a naughty-but-catchy ode to a male bodily fluid that is quickly becoming notorious for its explicit hilarity.
The album’s more serious moments are mostly the introspective songs produced by singer-songwriter Michael Penn. Phair’s voice aches on the wistful “Friend of Mine”. “Little Digger” is a gentle ballad, almost a lullaby, about a young child seeing his mommy with a man who isn’t his father.
“What does it mean when something changes how it’s always been,” she sings. “And in your head you keep repeating the line, ‘My mother is mine.'”
It’s straight from the pages of Phair’s own life, as a divorced mother of a 6-year-old son, Nicholas.
“That experience happened to me and rattled around inside my chest for a couple of days,” she says. “And then I just wrote it quickly, all at once. I couldn’t play it without crying the first couple of months. I got past that, and now I can perform it. It’s nice for me, because it’s sort of my son on the album.”
“Digger” is one of the few songs on the disc that has escaped criticism. Most of the rest, however, has been savaged.
The New York Times ran a particularly sour review by Meghan O’Rourke, who called the album “an embarrassing form of career suicide.” The piece went on to blast Phair for gushing “like a teenager through relentlessly upbeat songs.”
Phair responded in a lengthy, rambling letter to the editor. She didn’t mention the album or the review. Instead, she put O’Rourke in the role of Chicken Little, the overreacting storybook character convinced that the sky is falling.
“She was personally attacking me,” Phair says. “I wanted her to experience what it was like to be misrepresented in the press…. And I was trying to get her to be like, when she read it, a little indignant. Like, ‘What are you talking about?’…. But it felt good. I didn’t want to be MEAN mean, just a little insulting. And kind of encouraging, because I really think the record’s good. I really think people could enjoy it if they would relax.”
Despite the criticism, Phair’s confidence doesn’t seem to have taken a hit. Whenever she’s done with a series of tough interviews, she sits down and listens to the album again. It answers any of her questions and doubts.
“I can see how it wouldn’t be ‘Guyville,'” she says. “But I can’t see how I could make ‘Guyville’ again, or would want to. And I don’t understand people that are so narrow-minded about music. It freaks me out a little bit. I wonder who these people are, and what kind of lives they lead.”