By Jimmy Draper
DIW, 5.2, May/July 2003
“It’s my deep, dirty secret,” Liz Phair confesses over the phone from the upstairs bathroom in her Los Angeles home. Huddled in the space she likes to think of as her private office, the onetime indie icon is explaining why she chose such a poppy, airwave-ready approach to her self-titled fourth album. “My friends are musical connoisseurs that introduce me to really special, unique stuff, but if left to my own devices, I listen to the radio. It’s just what I’ve always done. I’ve always wanted to be on the radio, and it kinda pisses me off that they won’t let me on, like I’m not good enough or my voice sucks.”
Not exactly the sort of admission expected from the woman responsible for the indie-rock masterpiece Exile In Guyville, but longtime listeners shouldn’t be totally surprised by Phair’s search for mainstream approval. After all, she may have made her name singing such defiantly explicit, un-radio-friendly songs as “Fuck And Run” and “Flower” in the early ’90s, but by the end of the decade she was whooping it up at Lilith Fair, appearing in Levi’s and Gap ads, and releasing “clean versions” of her albums to ensure their acceptance at such chains as Wal-Mart and Kmart.
However, it wasn’t until news broke of Phair’s hiring of songwriting helpers — such as The Matrix, the production team behind Avril Lavigne’s Let Go — that many fans objected to her industry pandering while recording Liz Phair. While some elitists undoubtedly flinched when Phair sang backup on Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up The Sun” last year or performed alongside Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins, most fans couldn’t have cared less who Phair was schmoozing with as long as she didn’t compromise her music. With songwriting partners in the picture, however, the voice that made Phair so startlingly unique suddenly seemed in jeopardy of losing its relevancy.
“It’s flattering that people wanna talk about [my move toward pop] at all,” Phair says. “It says something nice about my earlier work, that they were very attached and thought that I had a specific kind of talent that they want to protect. But indie fans are very against hits, and I’ve always been a little bit at war with indie even when I was indie. I wanna keep doing stuff that challenges me, and one of the areas that I wanted to explore was the whole band thing, being bigger.”
To her credit, Liz Phair is, if nothing else, bigger. Record in Los Angeles, the album’s 14 tracks are culled — much like the mix-and-match tracklist on 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg — from roughly 50 songs recorded with multiple producers during several studio sessions over the past five years. And while Phair claims the record went through several incarnations, from “live-band country rock” to “ballady”, what resulted is her most unabashedly brazen attempt at Top 40 success. Slick and sleek, the polished pop-rock of songs such as “Extraordinary”, “Red Light Fever” and the first single “Why Can’t I?” are closer in sound and spirit to Lavigne’s “Complicated” than anything in Phair’s back catalog. In other words, it’s a great record as far as disposable radio-rock albums go, but in terms of the sort of witty, smart lyricism that fans have come to expect, it’s just not a Liz Phair album.
Which isn’t surprising, considering the LP marks the first time she’s looked to collaborators for help. Along with The Matrix, Phair enlisted Michael Penn, Pete Yorn, Walt Vincent and Gary Clark, among others, to give Liz Phair more commercial appeal. “I was collaborating with people [because] I was trying to find hit songs,” she flatly admits. “I just personally don’t write that kinda stuff myself.”
Many of Phair’s fans liked her precisely because she didn’t write that kinda stuff, however. It’s not, contrary to Phair’s belief, that her indie fans don’t want her to have “hits” — they just don’t want to her to lose her voice. And while Liz Phair may be crammed with enough catchy choruses to keep your car windows down and radio up all summer long (“I love the fact that it comes off really big and shiny!” she gushes), the album is such a shocking departure that whether or not it gets as big as Phair wants, she may wind up with an entirely new fanbase.
Phair isn’t worried.
“I’d be more kinda bonsai if I were trying to pretend like I was still tortured in my early 20s in the same way and naive,” she says. “If I kept putting out the same stuff it’d feel more fake, like I was trying to cater to an audience. I wanna keep adventure alive for me, and whether people agree with me with what that direction is, I can’t really help them.”