In the pantheon of rock ’n’ roll songwriters, Liz Phair is Athena and Aphrodite combined. Her songs are suffused with wit and world-weary wisdom; they’re also full of desire, passion, and doubt. She’s the kind of songwriter who’s confident and skilled enough to question herself in her own songs, like the way she drawls, “I want all that stupid old shit / Letters and sodas” on “Fuck and Run.” Indie rock and pop music are full of songs that hoist L-O-V-E up on a pedestal. It’s rare that someone has the self-awareness to confess that yeah, all this love stuff is pretty trite and rote but who doesn’t want letters and sodas?
Give a close listen to Phair’s first three albums and they build a strong case for her inclusion on a Mount Rushmore for songwriters. Exile in Guyville (1993) by itself is enough to get her face chiseled up there: 18 songs full of effortless hooks, Phair’s low-key vocals (alternating with ease from sneer to croon), and cutting lyrics dissecting boy’s clubs, dating, divorce, sex, and herself.
While follow-ups Whip-Smart (1994) and Whitechocolatespaceegg (1998) aren’t as front-to-back perfect as Guyville, they’re both jam-packed with brilliant songs. None of the songs on those first three LPs would have sounded right at home on pop radio: They were too unpolished, too unpredictable, all too willing to drop enough F-bombs and blowjob references to make radio censors pull their hair out. By all rights, Phair should have been as ubiquitous on MTV and radio as Alanis and Sheryl Crow, but she didn’t have a shiny enough coat of paint on her songs for them to qualify as pop art.
Years later, she tried making that big pop move with 2003’s Liz Phair. The fourth record by a critically acclaimed and respected songwriter, featuring pop-savvy production by The Matrix (of Avril Lavinge fame) — on paper, it should have propelled her to the top. It even had one hell of an earworm in exuberant lead single “Why Can’t I?” But the record had one big thing going against it: It was a victim of bad timing.
In 2018, “poptimism” is rampant. Pop stars like Carly Rae Jepsen have been given a level of rapturous critical adulation that would have been unthinkable in the early 2000s. An artist like Phair could make a big pop pivot in 2018 and no one would blink. But in 2003, when R-O-C-K was still the dominant musical force, such a naked grab for commercial success was tantamount to heresy.
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Phair’s self-titled album was critically savaged upon its release. It received a brutal 0.0 score and review from Pitchfork, which decried the album’s “glycerin-slick” production (and even hilariously cut down her song “H.W.C.” by calling out its “constipated donkeyfuck harmonica solo”). That review was the canary in the coalmine for Phair’s reputation in the indie world.
Perhaps Phair’s later work will get a reappraisal in the wake of her “comeback.” Matador recently released a deluxe reissue of her masterful early records, Girly-Sound To Guyville: The 25th Anniversary (which includes, for the first time, remasters of her 1991 Girly-Sound tapes that put her on the cultural radar in the first place). Phair is taking those Girly-Sound songs on the road for her Amps On The Lawn tour, giving folks a chance to hear those songs played live for the first time.
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of Whitechocolatespaceegg, the least loved of her original three classic LPs. Initially dismissed as her going-soft album, it’s now beginning to get the respect it’s due. Maybe latter-day records like Liz Phair, Somebody’s Miracle, and Funstyle will finally get some love too.