Exile In Guyville
Illinois based critical darling Liz Phair started her career recording songs in her bedroom, leading to her signing on Matador. Purportedly a song by song response to The Rolling Stones’ 1972 classic Exile On Main Street – Phair claims that this was because she had no idea how to structure an album from scratch – the unpolished and explicit nature of the album won her immediate attention and it was hailed as an instant classic. It’s still revolutionary; some of Phair’s lyrical assertions are shocking in their frankness. But Exile In Guyville is far more potent in societal terms than in musical terms; lines like “I’ll be your blowjob queen” are far more memorable than most of her tunes. Phair’s unusual song structures and melodies do reveal an interesting talent, but at eighteen tracks and lots of slow draggy songs Guyville could benefit from some drastic trimming.
Despite the aggressive sexual assertion of songs like ‘Flower’ and ‘Dance Of The Seven Veils’, it’s the insecure admissions of ‘Fuck and Run’ that is the album’s most emotionally affecting moment. “I want all that stupid old shit/Like letters and sodas”, she complains, revealing a sweetness that’s not apparent in other moments; “I can feel it in my bones/I’m gonna spend my whole life alone/It’s fuck and run/Fuck and run/Even when I was seventeen.” Even discounting the most provocative moments, her lyrics are often excellent: “When you said that I wasn’t worth talking to/I had to take your word on that/But if you’d known/How that would sound to me/You would have taken it back/And boxed it up and buried it in the ground….Burned it up and thrown it away” is a particularly telling couplet from ‘Divorce Song’. Even if Phair is an insightful writer, Exile In Guyville isn’t consistently musically engaging; for every well constructed piece like ‘Fuck and Run’ or ‘Stratford-on-Guy’, there’s a dull tuneless meandering like ‘Canary’ or ‘Shatter’.
There is a more substance to Exile In Guyville than there usually is for an album rated at this level, but ideally it would be enjoyable to listen to as well as being ground-breaking.
(this is the demo version of ‘Fuck and Run’ – couldn’t find the original on Youtube)
Exile on Guyville was such a unique record that it was inevitable that its follow-up would be more normal. Whip-Smart is far closer to regular Indie rock than its predecessor. The song structures and lyrics are more conventional, and the arrangements are punchier. This takes away a lot of what made Phair unique, but I find Whip-Smart more listenable than its predecessor. Still, there’s no single song that comes up to the standard of ‘Fuck and Run’.
The two most significant songs are at the beginning; ‘Chop Sticks’ bears the closest resemblance to Exile, with the detached vocals and dirty lyrics at their most evident. ‘Supernova’ is the unabashed attempt at a hit single, with a purposefully big chorus; it’s not as embarrassing as her later attempts at commercialism, but it’s not particularly convincing. I’m sure that her lover was flattered to be compared favourably to a volcano (it’s probably more flattering than being referred to as a “fountain of youth” – see below), but it’s cloying and the music is vapid. Elsewhere the album is just middling quality the whole way through; Phair has plenty of personality, but there’s scarce little that’s memorable and nothing that’s outstanding on a musical level. The “you’ve got to have fear in your heart” chorus from ‘Shane’ sticks, using the numbing repetition of Phair’s low key voice effectively. There are effective rock songs in ‘Go West’ and the title track, and Phair’s skewed take on the genre is more interesting than many of her generic mid-nineties contemporaries.
Still, it’s not a good sign when the primary reason that I prefer this album to its predecessor is because it’s significantly shorter.
Whitechocolatespaceegg is my favourite Liz Phair album, although that’s not saying much. I’m not sure if that says something about my tastes; maybe I’m too mainstream to enjoy her two earlier, rough-edged and more provocative releases. But stripped of her individuality, there’s nothing to recommend her over more musically talented contemporaries; there’s the occasional nice chord sequence or winsome melody, but nothing particularly significant. Many of her original fans were disgruntled by the clean production and inoffensive nature of the record, claiming it as the point where Phair lost her inspiration and creativity – a theory supported by the song ‘Shitloads of Money’, where Phair unequivocally states that “It’s nice to be liked/But it’s better by far to get paid.”
Even though her lyrics are less remarkable than previously, due mostly to a lack of explicit sexual imagery, they’re insightful and read well on paper, so it’s a shame that she can’t convey them better musically. ‘Polyester Bride’ is my favourite Liz Phair song, combining a memorable chorus and eloquently feminist lyrics into a concise package. She also manages memorable and plaintive melodies on ‘Uncle Alvarez’ (another winner) and ‘Go On Ahead’, while ‘Love is Nothing’ is almost too poppy for Phair’s oeuvre with its blatant hooks heading straight for the pay dirt. ‘Headache’ even gets trippy, with a catchily repetitive bass line. Still, it’s hard to be too excited about Whitechocolatespaceegg; it’s too uniform, with most tracks based around clean rhythm guitar textures, and there are too many throwaway tracks like the dorky rockabilly of ‘Baby Got Going’.
There are worse 1990’s acts out there – I like Phair enough to sit through four of her albums – but I’m not sure if she’ll be remembered beyond the shock effect of ‘Exile in Guyville’.
The strange decision of this formerly controversial indie queen to hire Avril Lavigne’s producers and aim for the mainstream has been met with widespread bemusement, and it’s not difficult to see why. The whole package is so misguided and fraught with inner contradictions that it’s almost impossible to take seriously. Phair has explained that she’s always wanted a hit single, while apologists have tried to explain that the album reflects Phair’s confusion as a mother and divorcee; this explain the slick production but not the incoherent and laughable mishmash of lyrical content.
While the album’s often too slick and overproduced for its own good, it’s the lyrics that are the main problem. On the positive end ‘Little Digger’ is touching enough, stating Phair’s attachment to her child and her confusion regarding her estrangement from the child’s father, although it gets condescending fast with lines like “Now you’re thinking little thoughts about it”. Elsewhere the lyrics range from generic, to teen generic (“Baby, baby, if it’s all right/I want you to rock me……ALL NIGHT”), to a level of ridiculousness seldom equalled in the history of popular music. “Oh baby know what your like?/You’re like my favorite underwear/And I’m slipping you on again tonight” is the punch line of ‘Favourite’, and it’s hard to imagine anything more cringe-worthy. That is, until Phair outdoes herself with ‘H.W.C.’; backed by some innocuously bright country rock, Phair extols the virtues of semen as a beauty aid. A fountain of youth is, in fact, the exact metaphor she uses to describe her lover.
Liz Phair isn’t without musical appeal, but it just loses any possible credibility with some of the shallowest lyrics in the history of recorded music.