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I've just finished listening to all three of Liz Phair's full-length discs (excluding her EP Juvenilia), a comparative experience I don't recommend. The discs follow a steady and depressing arc: great to good to lame. Oh, the lyrics are still Phair-ish enough to make whitechocolatespaceegg worth at least one spin -- the combination of deadpan wit, self-disclosure, and obscurity that made Phair the college-radio voice for a while. It's just that this new album is so, well, ordinary. You can put it on, and let it play in the background while you get things done, and little of it is likely to assert itself and make you sit up and take notice, the way Exile in Guyville did.

The new album (I'm not about to type out that whole title again) is even more overproduced than Phair's 1994 follow-up Whip-Smart, yet this new sonic expansiveness results in a narrower listening experience. Aside from Phair's singing voice -- which is still the musical equivalent of a generation's "whatever" shrug -- the music has no personality. What's missing is the DIY scrappiness of Exile, the intimate low-techness of the songs, as if a college friend were singing them in your living room near the end of a long party. Among other alterna-divas, PJ Harvey has managed to broaden her musical horizons while retaining the quality that makes her seem to speak only to you. Phair doesn't seem to be speaking to you any more, or to anyone else -- though her lyrics certainly read well in print. (Dear God, is she turning into Jewel?)

Despite the occasional sharp old-school-Phair lyric ("You can take me home, but I will never be your girl"), this is a more settled and centered Phair, and it sounds terrible to say, but emotional well-being doesn't often result in great art. It did in Exile, where you could hear the pain bleeding through the cracks of Phair's deceptively disaffected vocals. Occasionally on the new album she'll give her voice that distinctive quaver or upward swoop; like Warren Zevon, she makes the most of a limited vocal range. But buried under the three-producer overproduction -- and too many cooks have definitely spoiled this broth -- she could be any angry white chick trading in empty angst on corporate radio. Indeed, every song on the album sounds groomed for radio. It sounds less like growth and change than like conscious mainstreaming. Whip-Smart may have sounded at the time like a slightly poppier reiteration of Exile, but even at its most radio-ready ("Supernova"), it was never this slick.

To go through the album song by song would almost be systematic cruelty. The disc gets off to a flying stop with the title track, with its simplistic lyrics, its lumbering "When the Levee Breaks" beat, and its endless drone to fade-out. I assume "Big Tall Man" will be the first single, except it's being released a bit too late to be the car-radio, windows-down, spring-breeze anthem it wants to be. Like a couple of other songs here, it's infectious but essentially hollow. "Perfect World" plays like imitation Tori Amos, with lyrics like "No need for Lucifer to fall if he'd only keep his mouth shut." It isn't until track 4, the domestic-abuse tale "Johnny Feelgood," with its harsh lyrics and sharp music to match, that we get an earful of the Liz we know and love. (Apropos of nothing, it's also the only track wherein Phair employs the F-word. The woman who once sang "I'll fuck you till your dick is blue" is minding her language here; this, much unlike Exile, is a CD you can take home to meet your mom.)

The rest of the album is hit and miss. "Polyester Bride" has homey, anecdotal lyrics and a nice, unpretentious melody that didn't need to be sold quite so hard; instead of the catchy acoustic tune it should be, it's pumped up and turned into another "Big Tall Man." "Love Is Nothing" is a potentially cool song about the boring work that goes into a relationship; too bad the arrangement itself is boring. In "Baby Got Going," perhaps the worst thing Phair has ever committed to vinyl, the obnoxious harmonica and other instruments wielded by producer Scott Litt (who has produced REM) drown Phair out almost totally.

What it boils down to is: The tracks Phair herself produced, like "Big Tall Man" and the amusing "Shitloads of Money," are nice tries; the tracks produced by Brad Wood (who produced her first two albums) are the most successful; the tracks Scott Litt produced, except for the Liz-and-a-guitar finale "Girls' Room," are ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag. So it's no surprise that the Wood-produced "Johnny Feelgood" and the chilling "Go On Ahead" are the highlights, while the worst -- "Baby Got Going" and the execrable "Headache," the second-worst thing Phair has ever committed to vinyl, with its techno-porno beat -- are the handiwork of Litt, who also invites three REM friends to sit in, rather blandly I thought, on "Fantasize." If I were Phair, I wouldn't ask Litt back for the next go-round. He did good work with REM, but Phair isn't REM. She's herself, and the problem with this disc is that she isn't quite herself.

A few years ago, Courtney Love dissed Phair in an interview: "She reminds me of a potato." I thought that was a mean remark then (when all Love had to go on was the un-potato-like Exile), and I think it's a mean remark now. But there's definitely something of the potato about whitechocolatespaceegg. These songs have been mashed and baked and buttered within an inch of their lives, and the whole album sounds as though it's been sitting around for so long it's started to grow eyes. Personally, Phair took a long sabbatical to get married and have a child; musically, since Whip-Smart, she's kept her hand in with uninspired contributions to soundtracks or compilations. (My heart sank when I heard her cover of the Banana Splits theme song.) The new disc is her comeback, and we've missed her, and this might explain why some critics have been kind to it. To do so is to insult an artist capable of far better.