The Essentials: Liz Phair by Liz Phair

The accepted history of Liz Phair’s eponymous fourth album is that it was derided upon its release on June 24, 2003, with the rock intelligentsia lambasting it as if they were spurned lovers trashing their former paramours. Meghan O’Rourke of the New York Times, for example, wrote that Phair “has committed an embarrassing form of career suicide” and claimed “the album has some of the same weird self-oblivion of a middle-aged man in a mid-life crisis and a new Corvette.” The Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot said, “After I heard a quick preview at the South by Southwest Music Conference, the forthcoming album struck me as a ‘Hollywood lube job,’ and subsequent listens haven’t altered my thinking.” (Apparently, he opposes routine car maintenance in L.A.!) Tim Pratt of the Detroit Free Press, meanwhile, wrote, “Now she comes off as a woman desperately trying to sound like [Avril] Lavigne, Sheryl Crow or the dozens of other interchangeable pop stars.” And, of course, Pitchfork—in an infamous review from 19-year-old scribe Matt LeMay—graded the album an 0.0.

(Chicago Tribune, 1993)

Plenty of other snarky reviews can be found, too. Here’s one: The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Tom Moon called it “a spectacular career spinout” and “a set of shrill, desperately oversexed and cynical songs built to code, but completely hollow on the inside.” 

What’s often left out of the snapshot history, however, is that many writers and outlets liked what they heard and said so in print. Jim Farber of the New York Daily News, for instance, opened his review by exclaiming, “On her new album, Liz Phair refuses to act her age—and winds up the better for it.” Later, he explained that “Phair makes some rare connections: between grownup experiences and youthful music, and between potentially threatening points of view and downright cheery tunes. The result bridges ages and sensibilities in a uniquely subversive way. ‘As I got older,’ Phair sings, ‘I had to step out of line/And make up my own mind.’” Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Slant and no less than the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau also gave their thumbs-up to the 14-song set.

(Rolling Stone)

To understand the chasm between the two reactions, one needs to return to Phair’s debut, Exile in Guyville, which was released on June 22, 1993. It was brash and profane, a proverbial middle finger to the accepted conventions of the music industry writ large, and—though recorded at Chicago’s Idful Studios—a forerunner of both lo-fi and bedroom pop. As Kot outlined in his anti-car maintenance manifesto, it “established the then-Wicker Park resident as one of the decade’s most vibrant songwriting voices with its mix of explicit confessions, punk-feminist attitudes and rough-‘round-the-edges sonics.” Those who loved it, in other words, became its champions, while those who disliked it were few and far between. (Most of the latter simply heard it as hipster trend—if they heard it at all.) Which is why, in the years that followed, it was routinely heralded as both a cult favorite and classic. Rolling Stone ranked it No. 328 in its 2003 countdown of the 500 all-time best albums, for example, and it jumped to No. 50 in the magazine’s 2020 update. But fervent acclaim brings with it an inherent danger for the artist: Variating from the formula may induce backlash—especially when “variating” means transitioning from cult favorite to commercial artist. Staying in one’s lane is one of the unwritten rules of rock music, after all, especially when it comes to cult favorites. 

In other words, fans are a fickle bunch and critics are the ficklest of them all. Some heard the poppy sounds as some sort of personal betrayal, which is why they penned half-page (and longer) takedowns rather than snippy capsule reviews. How dare she make like Avril Lavigne, the (at-the-time) 17-year-old prodigy who’d enjoyed such punky pop hits as “Sk8ter Boi” and “Complicated” and sold millions upon millions of copies of her debut album, Let’s Go?!

(Best Buy ad)

Or something like that. 

All of which leads to this: At the time she released her eponymous album, I was unaware of the criticisms directed at it. I’d enjoyed Guyville from the get-go. I liked the albums that followed, too, though—as happens to ordinary, average, everyday, sane, psycho, super-music fans like me—enjoyed far more artists and bands than I had actual listening time to fill, so only played them on a smattering of occasions. The same has happened with other constants in my life, I should add. You buy, you listen and, if not immediately hooked, move on, only to discover their hidden charms at a later date. It’s what music fans do.

With Liz Phair, however, I hung out a tad longer. “Why Can’t I?,” the first single, is pop-rock at its best. It’s hook-laden and infectious—as is the album as a whole.

As with three of the other tracks (“Extraordinary,” “Rock Me” and “Favorite”), it was the result of a collaboration between Phair and The Matrix, which was the name given to the music team that worked with Lavigne on Let’s Go. Certain sonic similarities exist as a result, but there are differences, too—the most notable being Phair’s well-toned vocals. Her distinctive point of view also infuses the lyrics with something new. She was 36, a single mom, and singing about life as she knew it. “It’s pretty simple,” she explained to the Boston Globe’s Joan Anderman. “I’m not 25 and getting high all the time. I’m happy I did Guyville and that people felt that way about it. Honestly, I look back and think. ‘How did I do that?’ I can’t write like that anymore, so I’m just gonna keep going. This album is a true representation of what I like and who I am. I know what makes me happy, and I’m unafraid to pursue it.”

That some folks had issues with it, well, that’s on them, not Phair. In fact, if they’d listened to all the lyrics of “Rock Me,” they’d have heard several reasons for the spiraling sales slump the music industry found itself in. The song, for those unaware, is about her desire to be with an uncomplicated—aka younger—guy, which is what most folks paid attention to. “I want to play Xbox on your floor,” she sings, before observing that “your record collection doesn’t exist/you don’t even know who Liz Phair is.”

As the 20th century gave way to the 21st, computers, the Internet and illegal downloads upended the music industry; that’s well known, I suppose. But there were more reasons for the music industry’s slump than Napster, LimeWire and the like. While the Internet writ large was sold as the democratization of knowledge, in practice it pushed—and still pushes—the democratization of ignorance. Add in this: For younger folks, the increasing popularity of video games stole time away from other pursuits, especially music, which made it possible for a 20-something kid to know little about what came before. And, when they did consume music, it was by way of ill-tagged downloads that left them unaware of who the artist was. (I’m generalizing to a degree, of course.) Add to that this: Empathy is key to appreciating art and, by the early 2000s, empathy was in short supply.

I’m way off track, I suppose, so let me return to a paragraph above: I wasn’t aware of any of the criticisms—or praise, for that matter—directed at Liz Phair. I was closing in on 38 and—as I do now—still seeking out new sounds and artists to satisfy my never-quenched musical thirst, but had pretty much stopped reading the music magazines (a trend that continued until 2008 or thereabouts). That said, the new artists included Avril Lavigne, whose debut I picked up after seeing her on TV. (As I’m apt to say, it held glimmers of greatness within its grooves.) Then as now, the idea of sticking to the tried-and-true bored me to no end. That Phair embraced the new didn’t disturb me in the least; if anything, it made me appreciate her more—she bucked what I call the “static quo.”

In any event, Liz Phair contains straight-ahead pop, rollicking rock and such plaintive, confessional songs as “Red Light Fever,” “Firewalker” and “Friend of Mine,” plus an over-the-top (some might say filthy) bon mot (“H.W.C.”) that, for me, is the album’s only faux pas due to its lyrics, which I don’t hear as saucy or risqué but silly. Yet even it has its moments thanks to a catchy melody and an unexpected harmonica solo.

Which is all to say, if you heard it back in the day and dismissed it, give it another go. Along with the equally overlooked Somebody’s Miracle, it’s my most played of her long-players. It’s an adult album about adult concerns that’s sure to hit home with anyone who’s willing to walk in another’s shoes for 50 minutes.  

The track list:

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