Liz Phair in 1998. (Photo: Paul Natkin / Getty Images)
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Between the Grooves of Liz Phair’s ‘Exile in Guyville’

Thirty Years of ‘Guyville’: Liz Phair and Life in Gen-Exile

Liz Phair’s ‘Whitechocolatespaceegg’ Turns 25

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Liz Phair’s indie rock landmark Exile in Guyville is truly sui generis, a one-of-a-kind moment in history where everything aligned at just the right time and place.

8. “Canary”

Ask any familiar listener, casual or diehard, to sing the song’s infamous single-line chorus, and invariably you’ll hear back: “Send it up on fire / Death before dawn.” This sinister lyric holds for the track, ostensibly about a submissive wife figure detailing to an oppressive male subject her daily domestic routine in which she “cleans the house…., put[s] all [his] books in an order” and “makes up a colorful border”. The lyric is fitting; the assumed revenge she takes is warranted. Phair is comparing herself to a canary (a bird known, apart from its more charming attributes, for its extreme nervousness and restlessness when caged and handled for too long). Her accomplishments are tantamount to learning her name and “jump[ing] when [he] circle[s] the cherry”. The imagery is simple, even bordering a touch on clichéd ’90s-grrl-angst, but Phair sells it with her flat, whispery vocal delivery against the chilly, sparse instrumentation that approaches near crescendo but reliably cops out each time like a weak tide approaching the shore.

9. “Mesmerizing”

As the pulsing blues-rock electric guitar and slowed heartbeat drumming of “Mesmerizing” fade out, we hear the garbled growl of a dog protesting having its chew toy yanked from its mouth. Certainly, an interesting way to conclude the ninth—and possibly, despite this strange inclusion, the most polished and assured—track on Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. “Mesmerizing” is at once steady and twisty in its arrangement and would in some ways be right at home on Exile on Main Street, the Rolling Stones LP Phair used as a template for Guyville (occasionally she claims to have actually composed the record as a song-by-song response to Main Street, but that’s neither here nor there).

Subject-wise, we’re revisiting familiar terrain, but Phair never threatens redundancy; she’s simply taking stock, reorienting us for the second half of our journey, and making good on the promise of the preceding “Canary” to go “deaf before dumb”. Something’s changed in Guyville—at least from the perspective of our tour guide—and what better way to prove that than to show us all the ways nothing has changed at all? And she does so by compiling pieces from previous songs on the album and reassembling them into a recognizable but decidedly different sonic animal.

Let’s begin at the end and consider our canine friend in the track’s closing seconds. The visual Phair is constructing not with words but with sound is reminiscent of Guyville’s second entry, “Help Me Mary”, in which Phair angrily spouts that she’s being “play[ed]…like a pitbull in a basement”. And now, a literal revisiting of that imagery, one that underscores Phair’s rhetorical inquiry, “Don’t you know I’m very happy?” (she isn’t) and its subsequent self-answering “You know me well” (he doesn’t). “Mesmerizing” seems to be a place where Phair has backslid and fallen into the old habits of convincing herself of false truths simply to get by; what makes this time different, though, is that it seems to be a physical kneejerk response as opposed to an emotional self-manipulation. In other words, she’s saying it, but she’s not meaning it. During the aforementioned question-and-answer, her vocal is given a gurgling underwater effect, calling to mind the watery haze of “Dance of the Seven Veils” and “Explain It to Me” (and will be heard yet again on “Flower”).

And speaking of water: “After backing up as far as you can get / Don’t you know nobody parts two rivers met?” One of “Mesmerizing”’s most, well, mesmerizing lyrics, and a vaguely threatening one at that. This Guy may well have exhausted his own capacity for emotional detachment, but Phair’s determined and insistent on crowding him, on reminding him that their tether is strong and its implications will outlast the length of the relationship. Phair isn’t being obsessive, this is no Fatal Attraction; rather, she’s being as stubborn and faux-callow as he is, throwing it back in his face with grit and guts, reminding him that a separation can’t and won’t be as simple and mess-less as he thinks. This lyric also mirrors Guyville’s opener “6’1””: “All the bridges blown away keep floating up”. It’s here that we realize Phair may have been playing around with timelines and chronology all along, that her investigation of this relationship cycle does not follow any clear or predictable path. Or, perhaps contrarily, it does follow the most predictable of paths, and when we met Phair at the top of the record, she was at this point, at the tail end of the cycle, making her vows that this kind of thing wouldn’t happen again (in fact our next entry, the classic “Fuck and Run” repeats, and repeats, repeats the line “I didn’t think this would happen again”) but finding herself hitting all the beats and taking all those faulty steps yet again.

And after her despondent declaration of being “very happy”, she repeatedly grunts that she “liked it”, as in enjoyed. Enjoyed what? When he “tossed the egg up and [she] found [her] hands in place”? That “with all of the time in the world to spend it / Wild and unwise”, after all the keen observations and smart retorts of songs past, she still finds herself wanting to be “mesmerizing” to these men? Phair’s articulation is the lowest of lows here, and she’s doing it with the driest of dry tones and inflections. She knows how absurd and sad it all sounds and is, admits the desperation of wanting to, hoping she might hypnotize and spellbind someone so neglectful and uncaring he’ll “say things [she] wouldn’t stay straight to [her] face”. She knows this, and she remembers this, and we hear that recollection in her voice, the injustice of having had to sign in blood that she, a few tracks ago, had “never said nothing” while he freely demeans her. There’s frustration here but also culpability: later, Phair will hyperbolically detail the string of tortures a certain “Johnny Sunshine” puts her through, and two albums down the line, the inferred mental abuses of “Mesmerizing” and “Sunshine” will take more graphic physical shape on “Johnny Feelgood”, where Phair will joyfully throw her hands up and helplessly confess that she “liked it” she “really, really, really liked it”.

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