It’s always been Liz Phair’s greatest trick to entice with a come hither finger, only to kick you in the balls when you get close enough to kiss her. The real kicker? She always leaves you wanting more. This is partly why her two albums since the landmark debut Exile in Guyville were so eagerly anticipated, and it’s also why her latest, the long-awaited, eponymous followup to 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg, is so contentious for longtime Phair observers. It flirts around—and occasionally fucks—with her own reputation/history, but it’s also Liz’s most brazen stab yet at mainstream acceptance. Liz Phair, then, becomes a problem record for both audiences. The fanboys are pissed because they have to share even more of their girl with Jetta-driving Sheryl Crow fans. Meanwhile, blanket-hogging mainstreamers might be confused by the record’s sudden rights and lefts down alleys of blue language and hot sex. Phair herself has made her desire for a larger audience clear. But by strip mining her past for a cash money future—and delivering some of the weakest material of her career in the process—she just may have alienated both sides of the bed.
“Rock Me” defines well Phair’s new direction. Co-written with big timers The Matrix (the songwriting team behind Avril Lavigne’s breakthrough singles), the track marries classic Liz behavior to a saccharine, mid-tempo rocker that’s pleasingly boring. In it, she details her relationship with a twentysomething goof without a dime to his name. “Your record collection don’t exist,” she sings over the Matrix’ trademark vocal processing and instrumental squiggles. “You don’t even know who Liz Phair is.” There’s that kick in the balls to all the types who like to think indie chicks need to be into indie guys. Here’s Phair—heroine of a scene—exchanging the importance of a solid record collection in favor of stamina and the naivety and promise of youth. The horror!
In reality, this isn’t that big of a deal. As important an album as Exile is, an artist is allowed to grow beyond her signature work or core audience in search of something more to say. But Phair’s five-year search seems only to have lessened the force of that satisfying crotch kick. Musically, “Rock Me”—like much of Liz Phair—is startlingly bland. Like so much of the Matrix’ work, it’s micro-managed to appeal to the most ears possible, sacrificing individuality along the way. Phair’s voice is still amazing and her particular lyrical delivery style intact. But over “Rock Me”‘s phoned-in, PG arrangement, it sounds like an impersonation of her own proudly NC-17 past. The collective’s three other contributions fare little better. “Favorite” is smiley ode to comfy underwear that alienates male listeners in the same way “Sex and the City” does viewers, while first single “Why Can’t I?” is a near re-write of “It’s About Time”, which the team recently penned for Maverick‘s young girl-rock combo Lillix. “Extraordinary” does open the album with a rousing, dirty guitar line and some coy, Phair-style lyrical interplay. But it too dilutes Phair’s proto-feminist self image sloganeering to simple, easy-to-swallow catchphrases. It’s like the CliffsNotes version of Exile‘s “Mesmerizing”.
Outside writing contributions aside, there are some great moments on Liz Phair that can be enjoyed by both fan camps with little bickering. “Love/Hate”‘s “Dream Police”-style synths and rousing chorus make it an instant summer mix tape favorite, but it’s “Little Digger” that’s the album’s dark horse standout. The quiet, mid-album number is drenched in melody, and makes fabulous use of Phair’s expressive voice. It’s the kind of song that gives you butterflies, only to take them away with a shot of reality. One of the album’s only nods to Phair’s role as a mother, it’s a divorcee’s appeal to her child for understanding about a new romance. But “Little Digger” is also the emotional opposite to a track like “H.W.C.,” which professes Liz’s love of a certain man-made skin cream that’s so far unapproved by the FDA. The track’s acoustic bounce is catchy, but where the cheeky sing-a-long chorus might have once been catchy, here it seems contrived, like a facelift that’s too obvious.
Like Jewel’s recent, confusing application of her folky songcraft to glittering dance-pop divadom, Phair seems to think marrying her famous “fuck it, I’ll say it” attitude to newly accessible (i.e., forgettable) music will be her ticket to the mainstream audience she’s apparently always desired. But aside from leaving older fans in her wake, the material just isn’t very strong, simply as good music. The intent is also confusing. Is the young stud of “H.W.C.” and “Rock Me” the same guy who plays trucks with Phair’s young son in “Little Digger”?
Whether or not Liz Phair succeeds probably comes down to tricks of marketing and label money spent. We can dismiss this as the uncontrollable force that it is. What’s more important is whether it’s successful aesthetically, both to Phair’s existing fanbase and to whatever new ones arrive because of it. Her voice is still strong, her reputation as the lovably cynical pottymouth intact. But Phair too often sounds like a hackneyed, nostalgia tour version of herself, working her way through weak adult pop that’s peppered with famously self-satisfied, unflinching lyricisms that sound more like a cry for help than a confident come-on.
Check out previous Glorious Noise articles about the recording of this album: Exile in Hitsville: xxoo Liz Phair and Potentially Scary News for Liz Phair Fans. You can listen to some of the new songs on Liz Phair’s site.