An Alt-Rock Queen Returns to Take Back Her Crown – Slate

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Over the past decade, Liz Phair’s work has served as a key model for a rising wave of young, female, rock-adjacent singer-songwriters. Yet during that same period, the 1990s indie-rock feminist icon released no new songs of her own. Yes, she was busy raising a teenager and scoring TV shows, but she was also burned out after a series of business ordeals and backlashes. First, there was the outcry against her “going pop” when she ended up (inadvertently) stuck in a major-label contract. Later, paradoxically, she was slammed again for wreaking anti-pop havoc with her self-released 2010 album of outtakes and music-biz-satirizing comedy tracks, Funstyle. “And He Slayed Her,” backhanding former Capitol Records president Andy Slater, was black-belt industry-foe trolling well before Taylor Swift thought to feud tunefully.

Phair began coming out of retreat with a monumental 2018 box set for the 25th anniversary of her zeitgeist-rearranging debut Exile in Guyville. (That album was, by the way, voted No. 56 on Rolling Stone’s 2020 list of the 500 greatest albums ever.) Next came her 2019 book Horror Stories, a collection of troubled, poignant reminiscences that’s perhaps the most artfully written rock-star memoir I’ve ever read; a follow-up, Fairy Tales, is due in the near future. All this retrospection led Phair to reunite with Brad Wood, the main producer of her first three, strongest albums, and the outcome, Soberish, was first slated for a spring 2020 release. But then came pandemic pandemonium, so instead, the record’s only arriving now, more than a year later. And as if its songs alone weren’t proof enough of how much Phair’s reclaimed her aesthetic radar, the delay’s only landed it in a more simpatico environment.

Soberish’s many songs about romance at a certain age—Phair is 54—deal with reemerging from one life phase to another, as the vaccinated population is preparing to do. But it also triangulates with some of the biggest music-world chatter of the past couple of weeks: The celebrations of Bob Dylan’s quixotic career as he turned 80 embraced his decades of left and right swerves, by which fans once felt betrayed. At the same time, accompanying the rise of 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo, a lot of side chatter took place about whether it’s unseemly for “geriatric millennials” (let alone us bona fide olds) to enjoy teen-directed culture. Both conversations invoke creaky authenticity traps around who artists and/or listeners “really” are or are supposed to be. Phair’s whole career has been a rebuke to such questions. Even as she won acclaim for her confessional sincerity in the early 1990s, she met her foundational backlash via the indie dudes in her Chicago hipster neighborhood who thought that this suburban girl was merely mobilizing her petite blond appeal to usurp their righteous and pure rock-world places. (Guess how many of those guys still inspire new artists today?) As an art-school grad, however, Phair always looked at each of her projects like an exhibition or an installation, from her legendary bedroom four-track “Girly-Sound” tapes on—a perishable array of ideas and stances, rather than some kind of ongoing pop-persona narrative.

Soberish, which draws not just on Guyville but perhaps everything Phair’s ever done, offers an occasion to ask whether it’s finally time to stop policing her transformations, just as Dylan’s chameleonic multiplicity finally became his most beloved trait. Stop crying “Judas!” just because Phair decided to roll with a fraught situation and see if she could make radio-friendly anthems in the 2000s. She does distance herself now somewhat from those records—pro pop critics like me have defended them perhaps too vociferously—but she always stressed that she gained a lot of both performance skills and younger fans from those musical tangents. No excursion is entirely wasted. As she sings here on “Good Side,” reiterating some of the self-criticisms she scrutinized in Horror Stories, “There’s so many ways to fuck up a life,” but at least, “I try to be original.” Dylan couldn’t have put it better, because he’d never admit it so frankly.

Generationally, pop-rock darling du jour Rodrigo is at least indirectly among the heirs of Phair, Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, and other emotionally confrontational 1990s women. And Phair has made a record that nods back to when she was a voice of a generation in its sonics and sometimes lyrics, too. “Dosage” refers back to the bartender character Henry from “Polyester Bride,” while the extended “pussy” joke of “Bad Kitty” carries on Phair’s lifelong insistence on an unapologetic, untrammeled feminine sexuality. Nevertheless, Soberish is fearlessly a middle-aged record, about the trepidations of daring to love and create while you have a lot of cautionary experience behind you.

The twentysomething female rockers who look up to her helped embolden her comeback. But Phair makes no effort here to fit in stylistically with Phoebe Bridgers, Sadie Dupuis (of Speedy Ortiz and Sad13), Waxahatchee, or any of her other young acolytes. Likewise, she hasn’t made a #MeToo-focused album, despite the chapter of Horror Stories relating how much harassment she’s experienced in the music industry. Phair was putting language to those issues as soon as her voice first hit tape, and the theme remains present by implication: On “Ba Ba Ba,” she eroticizes the sentiment “I feel safe,” inverting rock’s macho heritage of lust for fantastical dangers. It seems Phair trusts younger fans to appreciate these elements without blatantly catering to their expectations, while knowing her contemporaries might benefit from someone honestly grappling with their own specific life passages, however much we still identify with youthful anxieties and intensities. Art is never exclusively “for” anyone, so long as it’s deep and good. Still, Phair does pose here the reverse Rodrigo question, of whether that attention can and will be reciprocated when an older woman testifies.

It’s hard to think of many other big Gen X names who have dealt quite so well with the attitude adjustments age brings, spooked as we were by the “dad rock” of the declining Boomer stars we made fun of 30 years ago. But since 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg, her first album after marriage and childbirth, Phair’s rarely shied away from making mom rock. Even in her mid-20s on Guyville, she was anticipating what adult calamities might be like; take “Divorce Song,” one of my absolute favorite songs, which has held up even after I (like Phair) eventually experienced the real thing. You could take the opening track of Soberish, “Spanish Doors,” as a kind of sequel to that older track, in that it returns to divorce in less romanticized, starker terms: “What about the kids?/ What about the house?/ What about our friends?/ What do I do now?/ … How would I replace you? Where would I start?/ And I always had a strange heart.”

It’s a central question of Soberish: What becomes of the strange hearted? Maybe a little self-medicating, as flirted with by the title song: “I’ve got so much to say/ Somehow it’s never thе right thing/ I meant to be sober/ But thе bar’s so inviting.” Then again, as “Dosage” stresses, you’ve got to know how much indulgence is too much. The album partly invokes a mood of disorientation through Phair’s multitracked, intersecting, echoed-and-altered vocals, as well as layered instrumental effects, but again in moderation. The music gently trades the taut architecture of Guyville for an air of ambivalence and flux. Improbably enough, Phair has said that when she and Woods returned to the studio in 2018, she felt empowered by the country-rap-pop hybridity of “Old Town Road” to aim for a stylistic deconstruction. But the results are as much a mashup of eras as of genres. Along with its rationed booze and weed, the album inhales a calibrated tincture of nostalgia.

My main misgiving here might be that Phair still hasn’t recaptured the heights of her verbal imagination—the lateral-thinking non sequiters and juxtapositions that marked the Girly-Sound tapes and carried over to her first three albums.

Then again, that style was forged in private with no sense of an audience, as she transliterated, for example, R.E.M.’s cryptic mumbles into her own gender-flipped riddles. As you can tell from any given interview, Phair today is one of the most loquaciously articulate musicians out there, so it makes sense that her songs have become more direct too. I’m willing to trade those old free-associative, hypnogogic surprises for the slyly sharp scene-setting with which “Soberish” begins: “Everyone’s got a maze inside their heart/ The best we can do is pick a place to start/ Meet me in the lounge of the St. Regis at five.”

Mitigating any temptation to go back to alt-rockville, Phair told the New Yorker in April, was that “the older you are, the less things appear to you in black and white. The less things seem certain as good or bad. … I think I’m getting aged out of being rock, in a way. To be rock, you’ve got to go, ‘Fuckin’ A, this is what the fuck it is!’ … I miss being able to point the finger and be, like, ‘Fuck you!’ You have to own that—you have to believe it. You can’t fake that.” After all, even before he was 30 (in his less slacking generation), Dylan was saying something similar about his inability to carry on with “finger pointing” protest songs. An artist’s zeal to change the world eventually runs up against the way the world starts changing them in turn.

Few Soberish songs rev up to much more than midtempo, except for the near-closer “Bad Kitty.” Some, like “Soul Sucker,” bog down in that midrange without enough development, despite a promising groove. But the textures, Phair’s gift for melody (too often overlooked) and her unmistakable vocal presence keep most of the tracks feeling so immediate and lived-in that I don’t begrudge their dynamic straits. “Soberish” itself moves me to tears, as it advances from the sotto voce frustration of “why do we keep dicking around?” to the climactic, but still gingerly, “I will open my arms up and wrap them around you.” And “Sheridan Road” barely explains what’s happening between its protagonists, but its snapshots of Chicago landscapes divulge everything we need to know. It’s not as bracing as Phair in 1993 pointing a finger at “a hero in a long line of heroes/ looking for something attractive to save.” Yet when she sings, “Lightning’s exciting as it lights up Lake Michigan,” you might not have been there in the flesh, but you’ve been there in spirit. Phair’s innate lightning has struck again.  Long may we get to keep following the flashes.

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