By David Chiu
Newsweek, June 18, 2021
Last year was supposed to have been a big one for Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Liz Phair, who shook up the indie rock world almost 30 years ago with her debut Exile in Guyville. In 2020 she was scheduled to release Soberish, her first new album in 10 years, and embark on a summer tour with Alanis Morissette and Garbage. The pandemic suspended those plans. The pause, though, gave Phair time to update the record.
She remembers thinking, “Well, if it’s going to come out a year from now, we have to make it for then. Here’s the things that I think are going to be in place: Trump will have lost, we’re also going to be coming out of the pandemic at that exact moment. We want the comfort of sounds of the past, but we want the energy of something brand new—because we’re all gonna be brand new again.”
Soberish finally came out on June 4 via Chrysalis Records. It feels like a summation of Phair’s career, drawing from the pioneering indie rock of Exile in Guyville and its follow-up Whip-smart; the moments of reflection on Whitechocolatespaceegg; the mainstream pop-rock of Liz Phair and Somebody’s Miracle; and the sonic experimentation of her last album Funstyle. Phair says any resemblance to her back catalog was unintended but not unwelcome. “It’s kind of cool that that just snuck out through my unconscious,” she says, “I like that there’s some DNA in there from older works.”
Some of the new songs date back to a period when Phair was collaborating with her then producer Ryan Adams, for an album that never got off the ground. For Soberish, Phair renewed her relationship with producer Brad Wood, who had helmed Exile in Guyville and Whip-smart. “We have a shorthand from years of working together. But we’d also diverged and had a lot of experiences separately that I hear in Soberish, I hear my sound design from all the TV scoring I did, and I hear his fluidity of mixing. He can just take any crazy thing I throw at him and turn it into a gorgeous instrumentation.”
While the music on Soberish is sonically diverse with such elements from indie rock, pop and electronic R&B, its lyrics are a continuation of Phair’s musings on the trials and tribulations of romantic relationships.
“It is an album for in-between states,” Phair explains, “where one long-term relationship comes to a slow, grinding halt in the first half, and how difficult it is to disentangle yourself from someone who’s known you for a lot of your life. And then the second half of the record is dating new people and having that wild exuberance that comes from new possibilities, but they keep stalling out before they really get off the ground. And then when you get to [the song] “Lonely Street,” you’re like, ‘God, I really miss my ex.’ Then finally in the last three songs on the record, you’re like, ‘But f*ck it, I’m single, I’m ready to mingle, I’m Liz Phair again.’”
“Spanish Doors,” the arresting first single released ahead of Soberish, is a melancholic yet uptempo-sounding track that describes a breakup. Phair says “I’m taking you right into the restaurant where I’ve just been told by my long-term partner that we’re ending things, and I’m like, ‘What the f*ck? Who am I now? What world am I going to live in now if it’s not with you?’”
There are also moments of self-reflection, particularly the nostalgic “Sheridan Road,” which pays homage to Phair’s Chicago roots. “It’s a very time-and-place specific song, she says. “Sheridan Road is the artery that connects in Chicago the suburbs up north to the town and that multicultural, more dangerous, more exciting, competitive world. So Sheridan Road was always going from one state of mind—maybe protection, maybe innocence, maybe entrapment, where you just wanna get out—and then that feeling of opening up on Lake Shore Drive where you’re anonymous now and your possibilities are endless.”
Amid the long hiatus between studio albums until Soberish, Phair’s career has garnered renewed appreciation in the last three years with the retrospective Girly-sound to Guyville and her highly acclaimed memoir Horror Stories. Additionally, her DIY approach can be heard in the music of a new generation of indie female artists—among them Snail Mail, Jay Som, Soccer Mommy and Frankie Cosmos. “One of the reasons I wanted to work again so passionately was because of how many young women exist now who I understand and feel a kinship with. There’s just so many more women in music right now, and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to be part of this moment.”
“One of the reasons I wanted to work again so passionately was because of how many young women exist now who I understand and feel a kinship with.”
Phair thinks that things have changed since Guyville. “There’s manifestly more women on bills and in festival scenarios holding anchor positions in a lineup. Certainly home recording technology has afforded scores of young artists the chance to put their music out themselves, not having to wait to be in contract with a label. Social media also has empowered a new generation to take agency in their careers without having to go through the process of qualification. So many more voices are being heard right now, and I think it’s fantastic. Now whether or not we get lost into our own algorithms and become detached and disconnected from each other all over again—who knows? But you gotta make hay while the sun shines.”
Phair is getting ready to finally go on the road with Alanis Morissette and Garbage starting August 12. She is also thinking about her next album: “It’s already on my horizon. I know what it’s going to be. I kind of designed the memoir and these two records to be part of one phase of my work life. Hopefully everything continues to move forward and we’ll have another record soon.”
Featured Image: Photo by Adela Leconte/FilmMagic