By Ariel Levy
New York, August 15, 2005
Really, the grumbling started early. It was just two years ago that Liz Phair, America’s foul-mouthed indie sweetheart, released her infamous self-titled album, with its big, slick sound and blonde-straddling-guitar cover—a defiantly commercial departure that triggered waves of withering press. But even as far back as 1994, the year Phair released her second album, Whip-Smart, there was low-level whining about betrayal and selling out. Those Gap ads she posed for didn’t help any.
And in a way, the griping was a compliment. The backlash happened because people of a certain age and a certain background—people like, say, me—were just absolutely knocked out by Exile in Guyville, Phair’s brilliant 1993 debut, a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. (Can you imagine the hubris? And then she pulled it off!) It was a dazzling record that not only perfectly captured a moment in time and its particular feel and sensibility but also actually broke ground. No girl rocker had ever sung about sex quite like Liz Phair before: with insight and bravado, but with a shrug—more Kurt than Courtney.
So when Whip-Smart was a little sunnier, a little catchier than Guyville, her passionate army of fans got itchy. (Wasn’t she supposed to be our icon of outsider disaffection?) And when, in 2003, she released Liz Phair, an album produced in part by the Matrix—the team that brought you Avril Lavigne—and the music sounded stripped of the depth and innovation that made us fall in love with her in the first place, many of us responded like sour, sidelined spouses. Interviewing Phair for Spin, for instance, Chuck Klosterman moaned, “Early in your career you were one of the few people who really talked about sex honestly and insightfully. [Now it’s] more sensationalistic and maybe a little less sincere.” Phair wouldn’t back down. “I think this record is depressing to you because it makes you feel that you’ve lost part of your own childhood,” she told him. And she was almost certainly right.
“I think people liked that I stood up for myself and said, ‘Fuck it, I’m doing this.’ They were like, ‘That’s the old Liz Phair,’” she says now. If Phair is proud of the defiance with which she met her embittered fans and unapologetic about her play for mainstream-pop success, she is also very clear on what her last album was and was not. “I just needed not to be the victim anymore. I was coming out of a really bad relationship” — which ended in divorce -— “and I made an album that would drag my sorry ass out of the mess I was in,” she says. “I was literally holding onto my own record, waterskiing out of the place I was in.”
In early October, Phair will release Somebody’s Miracle, her fifth album. “This was more a labor of love,” she says. “This was like a soul record.” And it shows. If you broke up with Liz Phair before (because you felt like you just didn’t know her anymore), you are going to desperately want to get back together with her now. “I sweated that thing so hard. I fought my ass off to make it that way,” she says. “I really wanted to give something… I tell my badnesses so you can feel put-together.”
It’s a gift we remember from Guyville. Gone is the unconvincing peppiness of her last album; Phair is once again offering something weirder and more stirring and more confessional. On “Table for One”, she sings about a drinking problem, but more, really, about the existential reality of aloneness. “I want to die alone with my sympathy beside me / I want to bring down all those demons who drank with me / feasting gleefully on my desperation,” she sings. Not that Somebody’s Miracle is a glum album. The flip side of the lonely isolation of “Table for One” is one of the best lone-wolf anthems to come along in years, “Got My Own Thing”, a rocking ode to what it’s like to be finished proving yourself. The chorus is quintessential old-school Phair: “Ooh, boy, I’d love to help / give you enough rope to hang yourself / I hope you’re swinging this way too.”
As in Guyville, Phair was inspired by a great album: Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. “I wanted to do a song-by-song response, but I couldn’t — it was just impossible. But I could make my own record about all the little human weaknesses and frailties yet have it somehow still be hopeful. I wanted that core crystal thing in there.” She is thinking about more than hooking up on this album; she is writing about stuff that is (even) more interesting than sex. “Stevie really throws down quite a gauntlet,” she says. “I’ve never heard another record that describes real love, true love, cutting through cool, cutting through the norm. I’m much more cynical. I can couch myself in cleverness instead of trying to live up to an emotional standard.”
But she’s doing her best. “I am in love with someone,” she tells me. She’s living out in California, near Manhattan Beach, in a place she says she can’t really afford. (“I spend so much time scheming, like how to make money… I’ve read The Tipping Point three times.”) If her music right now is about independence, her life is about figuring out how to maintain that hard-won sense of self as part of a couple. “It’s sort of the next level of challenge,” she says. “I had a couple people I cared about pass away, and it puts a different spin on things. I do want to tell people I love them when I love them now. Mortality is definitely in there.”
Phair seems pleased that this album has the potential to call back her flock. “I have no hard feelings,” she deadpans. “They can come sit on my couches.” She’ll take back the people who gravitated toward her when she was young — watch how fast they run to the flame, she sang at the time—but she is not nostalgic about that era. “I fucked up my entire twenties,” she says. “I smoked a lot of pot. I was really angry and snotty. It’s not that those are bad qualities… there were some really fucking fun times! If I could replay my twenties, I wouldn’t get Guyville and I wouldn’t have the saucy stories I do. The thing that embarrasses me is that I was dragging out my teenage years.”
I ask what more she possibly could have accomplished in her twenties besides making one of the best albums of the decade, getting married, and having a child. “But I got divorced with a child!” she says. “I don’t think I really knew what I was saying when I said my vows, because to be honest, I had never really had a long-term relationship before that.”
She didn’t appreciate marriage; nor, she says, did she really appreciate her talent or her success. “It wasn’t until I had my son that I realized, You dumb-ass bitch! This is the best job in the world! To get up in front of people and make music? It hit me, the beauty of that: It isn’t about me, it’s about trying to create something for all of us,” she says. “You know how when you’re in early grade school, you make friends who are really different from you through Girl Scouts or whatever, and then later you branch off into groups of people who dress the same and are into the same things? When you become a parent, it’s like, Is there anyone else on this block who has a kid? I don’t care if you are a Republican. You become firmly rooted in the all of us. I should have another one.”
She’d really like to, but she’s not sure she can swing it right now. “It’s a completely impractical thought. My boyfriend is younger, and he’s not really ready.”
I ask Phair if she wants to get married again. “I do. And it scares the crap out of me. A person like me? I’m built for disruption.”