By Meghan O’Rourke
The New York Times, June 22, 2003
In 1993, the year Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville” came out, legions of young, middle-class, well-educated women found in her lo-fi debut a kind of all-purpose autobiography, and a template — smart, deadpan, but alsoo earnest — for making sense of their own experience. Within a year Ms. Phair went from being a 26-year-old singer-songwriter who had performed live some half-dozen times to the woman on the cover of Rolling Stone with the headline “Liz Phair: A Rock and Roll Star Is Born”. The obvious question was: Would Ms. Phair be able to sustain her success?
Ten years later, having put out two albums, “Whip-Smart” (1994) and “whitechocolatespaceegg” (1998), that were both greeted with mixed praise, she is now releasing her fourth — the eponymously titled and much anticipated “”Liz Phair”. It is, Ms. Phair has suggested, her bid for center stage — the moment when she will finally make the leap from indie-rock quasi-stardom to teen-pop levels of superstardom.
Instead, she has committed an embarrassing form of career suicide.
The album introduces a new Phair: a divorced, 36-year-old single mom who nonetheless gushes like a teenager through relentlessly upbeat songs with bland choruses like “Rock me all night!” and “I am extraordinary/ If you’d ever get to know me” — ironic, yes, but somewhat limply and shallowly so. You haalf expect the “i’s” in her liner notes to be dotted with little hearts. In place of a sometime feminist icon, we have a woman approaching 40 getting dolled up in market-approved teen gear (the bad schoolgirl look, recently embraced by Britney Spears). She’s junked her oddball, sui generis eccentricity for songs about thirtysomething traumas wrapped up in bubble-gum pop that plays off a cheap dissonance: underneath this sunny soundscape lies the darkness of life’s hard-won lessons. This is a superficial way of jolting us, and the result is that Ms. Phair often sounds desperate or clueless; the album has some of the same weird self-oblivion of a middle-aged man in a mid-life crisis and a new Corvette.
Not only will Ms. Phair alienate her old fan base, as she has defensively acknowledged in recent interviews, but in trying to remodel herself as a contemporary Avril Lavigne or Alanis Morissette, she’s revealed herself to be astonishingly tone-deaf to her own strengths. Lyrically, this album has little of the potent acuity of her early deconstructions of relationships, and musically it has none of her tactile immediacy. “Exile in Guyville”, a song-for-song answer to the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street”, seemed shockingly new not only because Ms. Phair, in her cracked, monotonous voice, sang about sex so diffidently and explicitly but because Guyville was such a recognizable, ordinary place — a collective village of young Americans whose defining idiomm was ironic detachment. Ms. Phair’s particular gift lay in her sharp-tongued charting of everyday emotions. Nearly all the songs were about romantic yearning, getting together, breaking up; the album was like a sophisticated self-help manual, whether you heard her songs as cautionary tales or as encouragement to take more risks. She wittily nailed the sulky disagreements of relationships, how quickly the trivial could provoke a sour truth: “And it’s true that I stole your lighter/ And it’s also true that I lost the map/ But when you said that I wasn’t worth talking to/ I had to take your word on that.”
Her voice always held a back-story of suppressed emotions, the kind it’s hard to get into a pop song; when she said “That’s just fine with me” in response to a sexual proposition, you heard everything that wasn’t fine, and also all the reasons she didn’t want to get into it. She repeatedly leveled her straight-talking sensibility at men who said “things I wouldn’t say/ straight to my face, boy” while expecting her to be a kind of sexy, game compadre. On a good day, Guyville was a place where women feistily, happily flaunted their sexuality. On a bad day Guyville was a place where one woke up with a man and “almost immediately… felt sorry.”
But where P.J. Harvey’s wailing or Courtney Love’s anger were shamanistic and almost feral, Ms. Phair was reassuringly human in her appetites, her arrogance, her fear, her inability to quite hit that high note. Her sexual frankness went hand in hand with a recorded-in-the-garage immediacy. The songs were spindly and moved in an odd, lopsided manner — parts were always comming loose, and who knew if Ms. Phair was going to hit the next note as she crashed her way through the chord progressions. Her signature style of drawing a word out across several notes in a kind of dull trill made a mockery of all that was feminine about singing. It seemed aptly to capture a generation’s uncertainty about what might come next in the sexual game during a permissive era shadowed by anxieties about AIDS and date rape, culminating in Antioch College’s prescriptive sexual code.
Living up to her debut would have been nearly impossible, and the critical consensus was that “Whip-Smart” and “whitechocolatespaceegg” didn’t. While “Whip-Smart” didn’t have the same singularity of theme as “Guyville,” it embroidered on Ms. Phair’s interest in American mythologies in songs like “Shane” and “Go West”. “Whitechocolatespaceegg” was more explicitly driven by songs about characters (several narrated by men) and eccentric wit (there’s a very funny song about a family portrait of her Uncle Alvarez). Neither album was a breakout success.
And so Ms. Phair has decided to reinvent herself. For the new CD, which took her five years to put together, she had come up with an album’s worth of songs (a handful produced by Michael Penn, which explains why she sometimes sounds like his wife, the singer Aimee Mann), but still felt something was “missing,” as she told Entertainment Weekly. So she teamed up with the Matrix — the songwriter/producer masterminds behind the teenybopper Avril Lavigne’s recent top-40 hits “Complicated” and “Sk8er Boi” —- in search of a radio hit. The Matrix are now writing songs for everyone from Britney to Ricky Martin, and they’re not exactly in the business of making a singer sound more like herself.
Yet Ms. Phair’s appeal has always lain in her idiosyncrasies. When it comes to rock, we’re used to wincing at stars dressed up in packaging that masks a lack of talent. Here, the wince comes instead from watching a genuine talent dressed in bland packaging. The album lacks the distinctive flair and sass of Ms. Phair’s earlier work, and has little of its savvy insight. The songs are catchy, replete with pop hooks, but they’re relentlessly peppy, and often Ms. Phair sounds as over-carbonated as a 13-year-old full of Diet Coke and Pop Rocks. The slick production diminishes her boldness the same way those child-size T-shirts emblazoned with the word “Sexy” always seem to make a mockery of their wearers. Her fantastically expressive diffidence has been replaced with a smooth and characterless tunefulness, pitch-corrected all the way through.
In the world of “Liz Phair”, banality wins the day, and intimacy is undermined by full-throttle presentation; the pleasingly goofy, outsize metaphors from “Guyville” and “Whip-Smart” about eyelashes that “sparkle like gilded grass” have devolved into hoary allegories in which relationships are compared to roadside accidents; life is a series of red and green traffic lights, and a woman is “like a wild flame”. Throughout, the singer studs her verses with soft clichés like “too scared to commit” and “it’s a war with the whole wide world” and moments of “lying awake in the dark/ trying to figure out who you are.”
Ms. Phair is still, at times, fearlessly and bizarrely outspoken — consider “H.W.C.”, an ode to the beauty benefits of semen. In the first song, “Extraordinary”, she offers a characteristic skewering of the contemporary male’s fetishization of psychotic women — “So I still take the trash out/ ddoes that make me too normal for you?” But the album’s sporadic ironies (“I’m your average everyday sane-psycho supergoddess”) are robbed of context and lost in all the sugar-coated guitar joie de vivre. The overall effect is of spending an afternoon with a once sardonic best friend overdosing on mood enhancers. You wait for the wink to come —- the flaw, the crack in her voice, the weird minor note —- that signals that Ms. Phair knows what she’s up to (and that she knows we know too). But it never does.
In doing advance publicity for the album, Ms. Phair has repeatedly said she wanted to explore new musical avenues, and noted that she wouldn’t know how to write “Guyville” today even if she wanted to. But no one expects her to. The newly divorced Ms. Phair could have written a record that captured the experience of women like her, women who may not have a husband to bring home a second check, but still want an active sexual life and maybe a child, and also want the means to raise that child. Music, after all, is a cultural arena that’s somewhat safe for older women. Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams, Kim Gordon and Chrissie Hynde —- all of whom have something in common, in terms of personality and audience, with Ms. Phair —- are doing fine. So it’s not exactly clear where the desire to infantilize herself comes from, unless it’s that Ms. Phair, perennially willful, wants to buck expectations and write home about it.
On only two songs on the album does Ms. Phair’s impastoed, cheery smile crack, and both get under your skin. “Little Digger” tries to explain to her 6-year-old son why his father is gone and she’s dating other men, and “Friend of Mine” tells of an old lover drifting out of reach. It captures something you may have heard your own single friends say -— namely, that at a certain ppoint they just don’t want to keep getting seriously involved (“I don’t have the heart to try/ one more false start in life”) because the adult toll of losing not only a lover but also a friend -— the person you talk to every day — is too formidably high. Like so many of Ms. Phair’s early songs, “Friend of Mine” begins in medias res, with a wistful but wry plan for recovery: “Gonna take a vacation/ stop chasing what I lack.” Of course, plans for recovery are quickly undermined by woe: “It’s been so long/ since you’ve been a friend of mine,” she sings, before saying “I miss you” — and for the first time on the record yoou hear an emotion more complicated than stage-lit optimism or empty irony. It makes you want to play the song again.