By Gene Triplett
The Oklahoman, October 28, 2005
Critics are still cracking wise about Liz Phair’s alleged commercial sellout on 2003’s slick, self-titled pop outing, and some are slinging similar slurs at her latest effort, Somebody’s Miracle. They yearn for the lo-fi, love-’em-and-leave-’em, profane indie princess of Exile in Guyville, the album that made her an icon for all the randy, disaffected outsiders of the world back in ’93.
But Liz is no less lusty now than she was then, and her autobiographical lyrics are as brazenly honest and confessional as ever. It’s just that she’s outgrown her bad-girl ways — well, she’s trying anyway — and she’s got only one thing to say to all the fan-boys and girls who don’t want to grow up with her: Go buy somebody else’s records.
“I was surprised by the intensity of it,” she said of the criticism during a phone interview from New York. “I think I accidentally stepped in doggie poop, you know? But I would get off the phone with these interviews and listen to the record myself and I’d be like, ‘I don’t get it. It’s not that bad.’ I know what it is now that they want, but I really can’t give it to them. I can’t be 25 again, and I can’t pretend I live in a world I don’t live in anymore. I just can’t.”
The world she lives in now is revealed with painful honesty on Somebody’s Miracle — that of a 38-year-old woman making a conscious, concentrated, if somewhat tentative effort to become a steadier, more responsible person in matters of the heart. She’s left the Avril Lavigne-style teeny-pop of her last album behind in favor of a more mature, Sheryl Crow-like, adult alternative sound as she embarks on her search for emotional fulfillment.
“I think this record to me is about kind of taking stock honestly,” she said. “Sometimes in my records I like to reach for things that I wish I were like. And sometimes I kind of take a moment and come to terms with what things really are. And this record was more about that. It was more grounded, sort of accepting some of my regrets in life or looking at my behaviors and decisions, and what have they added up to.”
Phair is as brutally forthcoming about herself in conversation as she has always been in her ongoing diary of songs, describing herself as an habitual “leaver” when it comes to romantic relationships. In the title tune, she expresses envy for the kind of lasting love her parents have enjoyed: “It seems I may never know / How people stay in love for half their lives / It’s a secret they keep between husbands and wives.”
Phair’s marriage to Chicago-based film editor Jim Staskausas ended in divorce, and she’s admitted to disastrous affairs both extra- and post-marital, and sexual escapades and wild-child abandon have been vividly documented in her lyrics. But she’s also the mother of 8-year-old James Nicholas Staskausas, and she’s managed to maintain a 2-1/2-year pairing with her musical accompanist, Dino Meneghin. Looks as if she’s made some progress.
“Yeah, I don’t think I want to be a leaver anymore,” she laughed. “That was from my youth. Monogamy isn’t hard for me. I think I’ve been immature. I think I’ve just been — something’s wrong with me. Something is not the way it should be, because I seem to always be sort of struggling against something. I have trouble with just being where I am and staying there and being, like, peaceable about it.
“I’m always taking a day and making it like ‘the best day ever.’ And people love that about me,” she said. “You can hang out with me and do nothing, have a really good time doing it. But in terms of, am I a good organizer, good planner, a good long-term goal-getter? I could be much better. I just know that I have it in me to kind of change in such a way as to be a better lover. I don’t mean physically but, do you know what I mean? To be a better partner.”
In coming to terms with being “squarely in the middle” of her life, Phair also touches on other personal themes on the new album. Like Exile in Guyville, which was her personal, song-by-song, feminist response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Somebody’s Miracle was first conceived as an “answer” to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. That idea was scrapped early on because Capitol Records considered the project too expensive and time-consuming. But two songs from the original concept album survived and are particularly meaningful for her.
“Table for One”, inspired by Wonder’s “Village Ghetto Lounge”, deals with her brother’s alcoholism while growing up.
“I was listening to (Wonder’s) song thinking, like, ‘What is the most devastating thing … Obviously I’m a white girl from the suburbs, so there were no societal implications I could bring to bear,” she said. “But I tried to think of the most devastating reality that is overlooked that I had experienced, and that was it for me. So I wrote a song about it.”
“Wind in the Mountain” is Phair’s response to Wonder’s spiritual “Have a Talk with God.”
“It was a song I wrote because my boyfriend was sort of arguing with me about what God is. He believes that there is like a universal set of right and wrong. And I believe God is more of a wind. You can’t really see it, but it’s always flowing and it’s your job to tack in and out of it.”
So my song was sort of explaining to my boyfriend what I believe and what I struggle with. … My song is having a talk with God, and I’m saying I can’t deal with this. Like, how do I deal with the sense of futility I feel sometimes and how do I keep trying to tack back into your wind, how do I keep climbing the mountain when I just see it’s like a future of more and more of it? That’s me, talking to God.”
And that’s still Phair, talking to people in ways that, like herself, are ever-changing. She’s still making her life an open record for anyone who cares to listen. And if they choose not to, that’s fine, too.
“The way I look at it, there are so many kids that are in bands that are just starting out, and that’s their time in life to be that,” Phair said. “Why don’t they go listen to those bands and kind of let me grow up and do what I do?
“I’m really trying to settle in and build something, both personally and professionally, and be a better mother,” she said. “I’m trying to make sure I’m living the life I want to live. I’m kind of thinking about these bigger issues.”