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
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.