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Return to Guyville

Back in ‘Exile’

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In celebration of its 15th anniversary, the legendary debut is being re-released, along with four previously unavailable tracks and a DVD about the album’s creation, filmed entirely by Phair herself.

By Fiorella Valdesolo
Nylon, July 2008

Exile in Guyville was honest, often alarmingly so. And that’s precisely why the album resonated so resoundingly with the countless girls coming of age in the early ’90s who passed it around like contraband, listening to it over and over again on their Walkmans, mouthing every single lyric. Liz Phair became a hero for disaffected young women because she sang so unflinchingly: about sex (“Every time I see your face / I think of things not pure and chaste / I want to fuck you like a dog”); about unrequited love (“I can feel it in my bones / I’m goning to spend my whole life alone / Fuck and run”); and about relationship issues (“It’s harder to be friends than lovers / And you shouldn’t try to mix the two / Cause if you do it and you’re still unhappy / Then you know that the problem is you”). Phair’s lo-fi labor of love (and hate) also impressed critics, earning Guyville a coveted place on lists like Rolling Stone‘s 500 greatest albums of all time, and Spin‘s 100 greatest albums (1985-2005). Now, in celebration of its 15th anniversary, the legendary debut is being re-released, along with four previously unavailable tracks and a DVD about the album’s creation, filmed entirely by Phair herself.

Much has happend to Phair in the years since Guyville launched her musical career — she got married and divorced; became a mom; and released four more albums, some good, some not. And while many musicians would bristle at the idea of refocusing the public’s attention on a debut effort, particularly when that album is as personal as Guyville, Phair was not daunted. “I wanted to do it,” she says. “It was part of my past that I had run away from, because it was a time that I was poor, and there were drugs, and I was sleeping with guys… It was just this weird time that I put behind me. But now I’m at a point where I want to bring it back. I’m like, ‘Well, what the hell is so scary? Let’s go see what that was all about.’ And it was really heartwarming, and, I hate to use the word healing, I gotta think of something better, but it kind of was…”

When Phair started out, she was just another artist in Chicago’s vibrant Wicker Park community, a.k.a. Guyville — “A kind of parallel universe of rockdom” — handing out her now infamous homemade Girlysound cassette tapes. Local music fanzines praised the tapes and Gerard Cosloy, co-president of Matador, who is included in the Guyville DVD, read one of the reviews, was intrigued, and, serendipitously, within an hour received a call from Phair herself saying: “Hello, my name is Liz Phair, and I want a recording deal.” She got it, and a year afterwards Guyville, which is actually structured as a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, was released. It was beautiful and sad and angry all at once, and it wasn’t just the explicit lyrics that caused a stir, but also Phair’s signature deadpan delivery of them. “I was definitely being provocative to some extent, especially on a song like ‘Flower’,” Phair explains. “I knew that I was basically saying ‘Fuck you’ to the guys. But when you get those girl singers who are like [mock singing in falsetto] ‘I wrote in my journal today’ — that’s not me. Why do I have to be soft and sweet when I’m pissed off?” Phair’s unabashed candor, and, well, balls are what fans wanted more of, which is why her self-titled fourth album was met with such disdain. Released on a major label, with tracks produced by the Matrix, the power trio behind Britney Spears and Hilary Duff hits, the album cover featured Phair nude and straddling a guitar, something which convinced many that their beloved indie goddess had bowed to pop clichés. “I couldn’t avoid the backlash,” Phair says. “It was definitely a drag, because I’ve always liked talking to people and every single interviewer would be like, ‘How dare you, how could you?’ And I tried to understand and to be cool with them, and I do get it now. It’s taken years for me to understand why it hurt them so personally.”

Now, more than a decade later, Guyville sounds as fresh as it did the first time around. Those who weren’t aware of it then, perhaps because they were too young at the time, may not even realize how old it really is. And Phair, back on a smaller label (ATO Records), hard at work on a forthcoming album, and preparing to hit the road again this fall, seems to have come full circle.

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