By Ross Raihala
St. Paul Pioneer Press, October 26, 2005
When ’90s indie queen Liz Phair resurfaced in 2002, she took a brazen stab at the pop charts by collaborating with the teen-pop producers behind Avril Lavigne and singing songs that would make even Stifler’s sexed-up mom from American Pie blush.
“That record was about being brash,” said Phair during a phone interview from New York. “It’s springtime, I’m ripping off my clothes — that was the feel.”
On Phair’s new disc, Somebody’s Miracle, she puts her clothes back on, at least metaphorically. (The CD’s liner notes are filled with shots of Phair’s milky, half-naked flesh, continuing a tradition that began when she exposed a nipple on the cover of her first album.)
“There definitely was an attempt on my part to be a little more soulful,” said the 38-year-old Connecticut native who grew up in suburban Chicago. “A little less surface and a little more about the engines that run inside you. It’s more contemplative and about plumbing the depths and thinking about harder things, like longing and regret.
“I don’t see it as a sad record, more of a squaring up with myself on things.”
Subject matter aside, the glossy, radio-ready production of Somebody’s Miracle has once again upset those who fell in love with Phair’s low-fi 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, one of the most fervently discussed discs of that decade.
Exile introduced Phair as an intelligent, fiery young woman unafraid to frankly discuss the good, the bad and the dirty aspects of sexual relationships. Playing into the fantasies of male rock fans/critics was a shrewd, calculated move, but the record still holds up today. It was also a clear inspiration for Alanis Morissette, who used similarly blunt songs to become a worldwide superstar.
Phair’s career, though, foundered. Her 1994 Exile follow-up, Whip-Smart, was supposed to be the album that established her in the mainstream, and she took four years off before releasing whitechocolatespaceegg, an intense and highly underrated disc that remains her weakest seller.
Still, she maintained a passionate and outspoken following, one that was not at all afraid to cry foul over the glossier, 21st-century version of Ms. Phair. “Mostly generic pap that any number of next-big-has-beens could have cranked out, a useless piece of plastic poking a pointy heel in the eye of the carcass of the artist Liz once was,” sniffed a writer for Pitchfork, echoing a familiar sentiment.
“I think my idea was maybe if I put out (Somebody’s Miracle) now, I wouldn’t have to go through all the crapity crap I already went through (in 2002),” Phair said with a sigh. “I thought they all had their go-round on the last record.”
“But, honestly, it’s getting to be too much. These people have to calm down. How can they be so spastic about it? I’m trying to think of anything in my life that I care about as much. Probably child abuse and when Bush won — very few things really impact me like that. I wish these people who are going after me would find something else to do. Why would you pay attention to a record you don’t even like?”
Phair may sound frustrated, but she’s not angry. If anything, she has reached something approaching, gulp, maturity.
“I’ve reached that age where you want to build things that last,” she said. “I used to be very much a person who liked to be in the moment and who would follow the wind. I’m standing more still on this record. I’m not chasing after that butterfly.
“You know, I’m definitely not the best singer out there, and I’m obviously not the best musician. What I am is a storyteller. I live and die by my lyrics. That’s what I’m all about.”