By Brittney McKenna
Nashville Scene | November 22, 2023
Even looking back after three decades, 1993 was a hell of a year for music. Nirvana released their final album In Utero. Björk hit the world stage with her appropriately titled Debut. The record-breaking soundtrack to 1992’s The Bodyguard, featuring some of Whitney Houston’s finest work, dominated the charts. And Liz Phair, a then-little-known singer-songwriter based in Chicago, burst onto the scene with Exile in Guyville, a groundbreaking record that remains an all-time alt-rock classic.
On Monday, Phair and a full band will stop by the Ryman to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Guyville, performing the record in its entirety. The show is part of a bigger tour celebrating the album, with L.A. indie popper Blondshell opening on the Nashville date.Exile in Guyville is the kind of indie success story that’s grown rarer in the streaming era. In the early ’90s, Phair wrote, performed and released DIY cassettes under the name Girly-Sound, a nom de plume that hinted at the woman-centric ethos of her future work. Hoping to find a record label that would allow her creative freedom, Phair reached out to Matador Records and sent them a handful of Girly-Sound songs. Label president Gerard Cosloy liked what he heard and offered Phair an advance on a proper full-length debut, which would become Exile in Guyville.
Phair recorded and co-produced the record with Brad Wood, who went on to work with acts like Veruca Salt, Sunny Day Real Estate, Smashing Pumpkins and Lisa Loeb, among others. He’d continue to collaborate with Phair up through her 1998 third album Whitechocolatespaceegg, then reuniting with her to produce 2021’s Soberish. The pair made Guyville at Wood’s Wicker Park studio, Idful Music Corporation, working from demos Phair had recorded herself.
The resulting album is steeped in Phair’s vision of life and womanhood, with blunt, often confrontational lyrics and jangly, rough-hewn production. Styled loosely as a response to The Rolling Stones’ 1972 album Exile on Main St., the record is threaded through with themes including love, lust and living among — to borrow a term from another ’90s cult favorite, David Foster Wallace — hideous men. Even the cover was designed to provoke, as Phair poses nearly topless in a photo booth. Appropriately, the album has become a touchstone for women entering young adulthood, even three decades after its release.
Exile in Guyville was an instant critical success and made Phair a media darling. It landed on a number of year-end best-of lists in 1993, including Village Voice’s sadly now-defunct Pazz & Jop poll. Certified gold by the RIAA, the album sits at No. 56 on Rolling Stone’s most recent list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (published in 2020). Its legacy lives on today, as newer artists like Soccer Mommy and Snail Mail consider it an influence.
Following the release of her second album Whip-Smart, Phair’s star continued to rise, as she made appearances on MTV and nabbed a coveted Rolling Stone cover. She’d release one more album in the ’90s — the more intimate and introspective Whitechocolatespaceegg — before experimenting with Top 40 pop on 2003’s surprising self-titled LP. Critics panned that record brutally and unfairly, including a rare 0.0 review from Pitchfork that reeked of condescending misogyny. Liz Phair has seen a critical reappraisal in recent years, with Pitchfork admitting in 2021 they would rescore it a 6.0.
The three albums Phair has released since then — 2005’s Somebody’s Miracle, 2010’s Funstyle and 2021’s Soberish — could have been correctives to that sudden fall from grace. But in typical fashion, Phair continued to experiment with and expand her sound, making a body of work that could be no one else’s.
Thirty years on from her debut, Phair remains one of the indie world’s most influential iconoclasts. This anniversary tour is more than a mere trip down memory lane: It’s a well-deserved celebration of a milestone for an artist who continues to trust her own vision and inspires others to do the same.
Featured Image: Liz Phair (Photo: Ezster+David)