Wow. A wonderfully written review of the new Phair record (from Slate) that Paul just sent me. I have a couple problems with it (I know, how bitchy of me!) but over all, it really pays tons of attention to the lyrics, which I am such a sucker for. I feel like Phair has always delivered in the lyrics department, no matter how crude (Girly Sounds) or slick (the new record and the one before it) the music and production has sounded.
As I’ve said before, I am hurting from the new one. It’s pretty…awful. I plan on giving it some more tries, but it’s weak, to say the very least. Also quite depressing, since I finally kind of feel the same way all those Judas-yelling indie rock crits and fans felt with the last record. And I never wanted to sympathize with that lot.
ANYWAY, read below, because I don’t have the heart to write anymore about Phair and the new stuff.
*NOTE* The hearty reference to the old track that didn’t make the album. It’s a goddamn shame, too. That would have lifted this puppy up to a higher, more listenable ground.
Liz Phair: Is her new album a return to form?
By Douglas Wolk
Posted Friday, Oct. 14, 2005, at 4:10 AM PT
It sometimes seems that Liz Phair has spent half her career running
away from her strengths as an artist. Her first album, 1993's Exile in
Guyville, was a near-perfect debut, showcasing a songwriter with a
thoroughly original style and scathing insights into relationships.
It's also cast a shadow over everything she's done since. For the last
decade, Phair has been alternately trying to approximate what made
Guyville so special and rebelling against it. Her 2003 effort, Liz
Phair, was one of those attempts at rebellion. The result was a slick,
airbrushed record that pandered to contemporary hit radio, played up
Phair's sexy bad-girl image, and dismissed virtually all of the
psychological and musical complexity that made her songs and
performances so entrancing in the first place.
Her new album, Somebody's Miracle (Capitol), is something of a
retrenchment, one part taut songwriting and two parts
radio-formula-retreading mush. The production that frames Phair's
inalienable gifts as a melodist is the kind of lavish, high-budget,
post-Eagles rock that she's gravitated toward for the last decade, and
this time it mostly works. (Too bad she's still trying to sing like
Sheryl Crow. With her unavoidably thin, girlish voice, Phair doesn't
have the chops for it.) The album's musical high point, "Count On My
Love," has an arrangement that Journey or Pat Benatar would've coveted
in the '80s, complete with a hyperdramatic bridge and breakdown.
The problem with this song, as with so many others here, is its
dreadfully dopey lyrics. "You can count on my love/ With me you'll
feel protected/ And you'll never be rejected/ Count on my love," Phair
emotes. If this doesn't strike you as Phair talking down to her
audience, compare it with, say, the run-on blurt that opened Guyville:
"I bet you fall in bed too easily with the beautiful girls who are
shyly brave and you sell yourself as a man to save but all the money
in the world is not enough." That's a great line, and it gets better
and stranger the longer you look at it: "Shyly brave"? What's that? "A
man to save" following "sell yourself"—are we talking about an
emotional rescue or dirty money? And who's this "I," and what exactly
does she want from "you"?
What practically everybody missed about Phair's early records was how
much of the emotional depth of her lyrics derived from her penchant
for assuming characters—she liked playing the "Is it me or isn't it?"
game, and she also liked playing the "This is so not me" game.
(Guyville's devastating "Divorce Song," for example, was recorded
before Phair was married; if she'd released it after her divorce,
everyone would have heard the song as autobiographical
self-expression.) In her way, she was as much of a chameleon as the
early David Bowie—a theatrical songwriter who paid attention to the
details that made her personae believable.
On Somebody's Miracle, Phair is still trying on roles. A couple of the
songs have characters who go so far as to mention that they're men: "I
wanna live that life when I could say people had faith in me/ I still
see that guy in my memory," notes the alcoholic narrator of "Table for
One." Another male persona has disappeared from the new album—twice
over. Advance review copies of Somebody's Miracle included a pumped-up
I-hate-my-job rocker called "Can't Get Out of What I'm Into" a song
that dates back to Phair's pre-Guyville demo tapes. The Miracle
version's last verse begins, "The things I have to do would make a
slut blush blue/ But I can't get out of what I'm into/ I figure two
more years and I'll go back to school/ But I can't get out of what I'm
into." On the ancient demo tape, the song had the title "Gigolo," and
the line ran, "I figure two more years and I'll go back to
queers"—which changes the whole meaning of the song. It's
understandable that Phair would back off from the original slur, but
the change has also made the song less theatrical (and funny) and
easier to interpret as an autobiographical plaint about being sick of
the music business. (When she wrote it, she wasn't even in the music
In any case, "Can't Get Out ... " is gone from the album now, banished
to iTunes bonus-track status. In its place is a dire ballad called
"Closer To You," on which Phair intones moon-June-spoon rhymes like,
"What you've got in your heart is enough for me to start/ Givin' up
holes in my soul, I don't need to rock and roll." It's not just banal,
it's nonspecific—an attempt to be universal that ends up being merely
vague. Even worse is the lighters-in-the-air single, "Everything to
Me," a plea to an inattentive lover: "Do you really know me at all?/
Would you take the time to catch me if I fall?" In case he doesn't
notice that he and Phair are "left with nothing but a shadow of a
doubt," she hauls in an enormous string section and does her best
impression of Shania Twain hurling the Ten Commandments from the
mountaintop. Phair's complaints were a lot more effective back when
she was muttering that she wanted "all that stupid old shit like
letters and sodas."
Still, there are a couple of smart, cutting songs here. "Leap of
Innocence," despite its non sequiturial hook ("I wanna make a leap of
innocence to you"), has Phair noting how a love affair's social
context curdled—"I had so many friends in rehab/ A couple who
practically died"—and then offhandedly half-swallowing the crucial
detail that "my mistake was being already married."
"Why I Lie" is even better, a nonapology apology that's yanked along
by an inside-out variation on the "Brown Sugar" riff. "If you ask me
why I hurt you, I don't understand it/ It's a special combination,
predatory instinct and simple ill will," Phair snaps, and follows it
with a bit that nobody else could get away with as a chorus: "I would
give some thought to it if I thought that it might do me"—here a
breath, and then at the very bottom of her range—"some good." (When
she gets back to the chorus later on, she precedes it with a
venom-dripping "whoa, mama.") As a song and a performance, it's worthy
of Guyville. That's not what she's aspiring to any more, but it's the
best thing anyone could say about her work anyway.