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Playing Against Type

Liz’s mojo is still lost somewhere

Ms. Liz to You

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When Liz Phair was penning songs for her self-titled 2003 album, her first in five years, she was not intending to alienate her core audience. “When I write, I don’t think about the fans at all,” she said via cellphone last month. “I think about songwriting.”

By Will Hermes
The New York Times, October 17, 2005

When Johnny Cash returned to the spotlight in 1994 with American Recordings, the first in a series of records that presented him as a folkie with a goth-rock demeanor instead of a Grand Ole Opry standby, fans and critics rejoiced. In 1997, when the veteran crooner Pat Boone released Pat Boone in a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, covering Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” – well, not so much rejoicing.

For a musician, changing stripes in mid- or late career is risky business. It can jump-start a flagging brand, as with Mr. Cash or the singer Linda Ronstadt (whose 1983 “What’s New” transformed her from a faltering rock singer to a multiplatinum standards singer). Or it can leave old fans cold without cultivating many new ones.

Just how tethered must an artist be to fan expectations to succeed? That question is relevant to two new CD’s by women playing against their established personas.

When Liz Phair was penning songs for her self-titled 2003 album, her first in five years, she was not intending to alienate her core audience. “When I write, I don’t think about the fans at all,” she said via cellphone last month. “I think about songwriting.”

But the response to Liz Phair from many longtime admirers verged on outrage. The record, a glossy pop-rock affair that shamelessly courted commercial radio, seemed worlds away from the cool, lo-fi intimacy of Exile in Guyville, the 1993 release that made Ms. Phair an indie-rock idol. Critics were similarly put off: a lengthy essay in The New York Times pronounced the album “an embarrassing form of career suicide.”

Ms. Phair, whose semiglossy Somebody’s Miracle is out this month and who plays Irving Plaza tonight, said she was “totally mortified” by the critical response to her last record. “But I get it, in retrospect,” she said. Some fans thought that “I was supposed to be on their team, and I switched sides,” she said. “But I was being a mom and changing things in my life. To make a record like Guyville again would’ve seemed really false.”

Somebody’s Miracle improves on but does not backpedal from the Liz Phair approach; three songs – among them the addictive “Count On My Love” – are turbo-charged pop-radio wannabes written with John Shanks, whose work with ingénues like Ashlee Simpson and Kelly Clarkson earned him a Grammy in February for Producer of the Year. But the CD does find Ms. Phair sounding more comfortable in the playground of commercial rock, and occasionally letting her voice wobble off-key like back in her indie days. Lyrically, it is a somewhat darker affair.

“There’s a lot of regret on this record,” said Ms. Phair, who noted that the Tex-Mex-flavored ballad “Table for One” was inspired by the alcoholism of a relative. “It’s about coming to terms with things, even if that means accepting that I’ve failed.”

Despite the critical drubbing, Liz Phair sold more than 400,000 copies and its songs were used in numerous television and film soundtracks – not bad considering Guyville sold only around 500,000 and, as the singer admits, until Liz Phair appeared, “everyone thought my career was over, labels included.”

Sinead O’Connor is another rock musician with a persona cemented in the minds of listeners long ago – one that she, like Ms. Phair, has outgrown. “There was a lot of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of me in the pop-and-rock arena, mediawise,” Ms. O’Connor said in a telephone interview, “and it had an indescribably difficult effect on my life and my childrens’ lives. I’ve laid to rest the previous incarnation of ‘Sinead O’Connor’ in inverted commas.”

Of course, tearing up a picture of the pope on national television – as Ms. O’Connor famously did on Saturday Night Live in 1992 – is the sort of thing that can trigger misunderstandings. But while her desire to be a cultural provocateur has abated somewhat, her desire to address religion and spirituality in her work has not. She has recently recorded Gregorian chants with the monks of Glenstal Abbey in Ireland, and plans an acoustic record inspired by Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

Her excellent new CD, released this month, is Throw Down Your Arms, and it is a spiritual record, too: 12 classic reggae songs by artists like Burning Spear and Bob Marley, all steeped in Rastafarianism, the Jamaican cultural and religious movement. The set teams her up with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, the Jamaican drum-and-bass duo that has played on countless recordings and is arguably the greatest rhythm engine in reggae. (They are to join Ms. O’Connor on a United States tour that stops at Webster Hall, in the East Village, on Dec. 8 and 9.)

Will fans respond? Ms. O’Connor, who concedes that at this stage of her career she is in the privileged position of not needing to make records for the money, says she is unworried. “If as an artist you put your pure heart and soul – all of you – into what you’re doing, people see that,” she said. “They respond to pure honesty in a singer. And I think my die-hard fans will totally get this record.”

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