By Jim Farber
New York Daily News, September 25, 2005
In the space of a 30-minute interview, Liz Phair refers to an affair she had during her marriage, a disastrous relationship she experienced after her divorce, her brother’s alcoholism, her days as a pothead and getting into “scenes” with various self-destructive friends.
“Everyone has a dark side,” Phair says. “I’m interested in owning up to it rather than constantly covering it up the way most people do.”
In other words, music’s queen of disclosure isn’t about to clam up now. The sound of Phair’s records may have changed dramatically over the last few years – from the raw rock that made her a darling of the indie crowd, to the brand of slick pop that made that same audience call for her head. But when it comes down to it, Phair remains one of our most honest writers, a woman who opens up a vein the way others might a can of soup.
On Phair’s fifth album, Somebody’s Miracle (to be released Oct. 4), she turns the bright lights on a brand new phase of her life. At age 38, Phair is singing about her fumbling attempts to act like a grownup when it comes to love.
“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,” she sings in the title track.
“I’m taking a look at my life and admitting there are things I want that I seem to sabotage,” Phair explains. “I look at my parents, who are a happy, golden couple, and I think, ‘How the hell do they do that?’ I have a lot to live up to.”
Phair refers to herself as “a leaver”. Yet, for the last 2 years, she has been involved with Dino Meneghin, a member of her band.
Mixing work and sex is a famous no-no. Is Phair once again playing with emotional fire? “It does create the higher highs and the lower lows,” she says with a laugh. “But I don’t feel like I have a choice because I can’t really connect [with someone] if there’s no creative connection. So much of who I am is my art.”
Yet on her last album, 2003’s Liz Phair, she came under brutal fire for allegedly selling out that art. She recorded key tracks with the same team that fashioned the chirpy punk-pop of Avril Lavigne. The album’s production, comparatively sweet and large, struck some observers as a baffling turnaround for an artist who built her reputation on harder work like 1993’s Exile in Guyville. The latter album had become a kind of bible for sexually assured, emotionally puzzled young women everywhere.
Phair says she understood fans’ cries of “Judas”, but couldn’t believe that the accusations dragged on. “I felt like I should get these people a therapist,” she says. “They must have better things to do. It’s only music.”
For Phair’s latest record, she kept the previous CD’s beefier, poppier sound, though she didn’t rely on so many outside writers. From the sound of it, she didn’t need to. Miracle contains the singer’s most winning melodies to date, not to mention her most confident vocals.
Sexiness & Glamour
The record is connected to Guyville in one small way: Each is an “answer” album that offers Phair’s corollary to a classic album. Guyville attempted to bring a female perspective to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Parts of Miracle play off Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.
Phair considers her song “Table for One” a parallel to Wonder’s “Village Ghetto Land”. She calls her piece “Stars and Planets” a “very pitiful ‘Sir Duke.'”
“I was looking for something to inspire me, a touchstone,” Phair says. “It was my last ex-boyfriend’s thing, when he was upset, to go to [Songs in the Key of Life]. It’s such a real and forgiving record. It covered everything in life with such spirit that it made me want to live my life closer to where [Wonder] is at.”
Toward that end, the new music finds Phair arm-wrestling with her willful nature. In “Why I Lie,” she sings, “if you ask me why I hurt you/I don’t understand it/I can’t help myself/It’s a special combination of predatory instinct and simple ill will.”
One thing noticeably absent from the CD is any mention of Phair’s son, now 8. “It’s not sexy – motherhood,” she offers. And, make no mistake, sexiness and glamour still count a lot for her. Someday, however, she thinks her definition of them may change. Thinking again of her parents’ long marriage, Phair yearns to see it as glamorous in its own way.
“I’m at the point in my life where I know I won’t get what I want unless I take incremental steps [toward a lasting love],” Phair says. “But it’s hard for me. I don’t like going step by step. I still like the big thrill.”
Featured Image: Liz Phair (Photo: Dusan Reljin)