Really, the grumbling started early. It was just two years ago that Liz Phair, America’s foul-mouthed indie sweetheart, released her infamous self-titled album, with its big, slick sound and blonde-straddling-guitar cover—a defiantly commercial departure that triggered waves of withering press. But even as far back as 1994, the year Phair released her second album, Whip-Smart, there was low-level whining about betrayal and selling out. Those Gap ads she posed for didn’t help any.
And in a way, the griping was a compliment. The backlash happened because people of a certain age and a certain background—people like, say, me—were just absolutely knocked out by Exile in Guyville, Phair’s brilliant 1993 debut, a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. (Can you imagine the hubris? And then she pulled it off!) It was a dazzling record that not only perfectly captured a moment in time and its particular feel and sensibility but also actually broke ground. No girl rocker had ever sung about sex quite like Liz Phair before: with insight and bravado, but with a shrug—more Kurt than Courtney.
So when Whip-Smart was a little sunnier, a little catchier than Guyville, her passionate army of fans got itchy. (Wasn’t she supposed to be our icon of outsider disaffection?) And when, in 2003, she released Liz Phair, an album produced in part by the Matrix—the team that brought you Avril Lavigne—and the music sounded stripped of the depth and innovation that made us fall in love with her in the first place, many of us responded like sour, sidelined spouses. Interviewing Phair for Spin, for instance, Chuck Klosterman moaned, “Early in your career you were one of the few people who really talked about sex honestly and insightfully. [Now it’s] more sensationalistic and maybe a little less sincere.” Phair wouldn’t back down. “I think this record is depressing to you because it makes you feel that you’ve lost part of your own childhood,” she told him. And she was almost certainly right.
“I think people liked that I stood up for myself and said, ‘Fuck it, I’m doing this.’ They were like, ‘That’s the old Liz Phair,’ ” she says now. If Phair is proud of the defiance with which she met her embittered fans and unapologetic about her play for mainstream-pop success, she is also very clear on what her last album was and was not. “I just needed not to be the victim anymore. I was coming out of a really bad relationship”—which ended in divorce—“and I made an album that would drag my sorry ass out of the mess I was in,” she says. “I was literally holding onto my own record, waterskiing out of the place I was in.”
“I spend so much time scheming, like how to make money. I’ve read ‘The Tipping Point’ three times.”
In early October, Phair will release Somebody’s Miracle, her fifth album. “This was more a labor of love,” she says. “This was like a soul record.” And it shows. If you broke up with Liz Phair before (because you felt like you just didn’t know her anymore), you are going to desperately want to get back together with her now. “I sweated that thing so hard. I fought my ass off to make it that way,” she says. “I really wanted to give something . . . I tell my badnesses so you can feel put-together.”
It’s a gift we remember from Guyville. Gone is the unconvincing peppiness of her last album; Phair is once again offering something weirder and more stirring and more confessional. On “Table for One,” she sings about a drinking problem, but more, really, about the existential reality of aloneness. “I want to die alone with my sympathy beside me / I want to bring down all those demons who drank with me / feasting gleefully on my desperation,” she sings. Not that Somebody’s Miracle is a glum album. The flip side of the lonely isolation of “Table for One” is one of the best lone-wolf anthems to come along in years, “Got My Own Thing,” a rocking ode to what it’s like to be finished proving yourself. The chorus is quintessential old-school Phair: “Ooh, boy, I’d love to help / give you enough rope to hang yourself / I hope you’re swinging this way too.”
As in Guyville, Phair was inspired by a great album: Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. “I wanted to do a song-by-song response, but I couldn’t—it was just impossible. But I could make my own record about all the little human weaknesses and frailties yet have it somehow still be hopeful. I wanted that core crystal thing in there.” She is thinking about more than hooking up on this album; she is writing about stuff that is (even) more interesting than sex. “Stevie really throws down quite a gauntlet,” she says. “I’ve never heard another record that describes real love, true love, cutting through cool, cutting through the norm. I’m much more cynical. I can couch myself in cleverness instead of trying to live up to an emotional standard.”