By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Although five years have passed since Liz Phair blew in from nowhere, it's still a little embarrassing to remember how bowled over we all were. Not that Exile in Guyvillewasn't very nearly as superb as was believed--just that we had no way of understanding what it was, and wasn't. The most acclaimed record by a woman in two decades? Sex-positive feminism with its own rock and roll style? Crossover indie DIY by a scenester with a rep? All that. But rather than presaging a damn thing for women-in-rock or pleasure principles or alternative nation, Guyvillewas at once permanently sui generis and rather trad. And even if Phair had been as visionary as we hoped but never quite parsed out, her essence-of-cool wouldn't have come near to diverting the historical trajectory that soon remarginalized alternative beyond Tinùviel's fondest dreams even as it made art stars of such varied babes as Polly Jean Harvey, Courtney Love, Sleater-Kinney, Missy Elliott, and the eternal Sarah McLachlan.
A year later, impressively fast and also too fast, came Whip-Smart. By all reports more girlcentric and less sexplicit, it nevertheless starts off like a concept album about one-night stands (five tracks, three partners minimum) and devotes itself throughout to sleeping with guys and all it entails, beginning with pleasure and going on to love, pain, and--most remarkably--a sisterly concern for the fellas. That last would be "Shane," where for almost two minutes an outro/refrain warns her sleeping young bed partner "You've gotta have fear in your heart" in deadpan repetitions that provide all the music anyone will ever remember from that track. Audacious as it is, this trick typifies an album on which the mesh of sense and sound is only intermittently within Phair's grasp--an album studded with intelligent songs that don't quite come together. If the old demos on 1995's time-marking JuveniliaEP were no more satisfying, they were at least more promising, because at their best--namely, the joke diptych "California" and "South Dakota"--they went places never hinted by the more developed Whip-Smart,or anything else this side of Randy Newman on E.
And that was that. After two-and-a-half albums in two-and-a-half years, Liz Phair took her Pazz & Jop triumph, her cover of Rolling Stone, and her all too cult-sized following into two-and-a-half years of semiretirement--marrying her video-director boyfriend, bearing a child, and gestating the next album so slowly there were suspicions it would never see daylight. But it did, and while some who overrated Whip-Smartbecause they hoped it was Guyvillewill now underrate Whitechocolatespaceeggbecause they're afraid it's Whip-Smart, I say it's the light at the end of Phair's tunnel. Guyvillewas sui generis because it was a concept album about Phair's sexual dilemma, which like all accurately rendered sex lives was specific to her. Whitechocolatespaceegg isn't so irreducibly "personal." Her own child may be the title song's "baby"--"Purple, yellow, reddish brown/Once I felt you, I couldn't lay you down/Don't be shy, baby, don't be careful with me/Let it go, let it soak me down"--and may not. That's what's so great about it.
To assume Phair's sex lyrics were strictly autobiographical was always to forget how songwriters of her caliber work--projecting, fictionalizing, stealing other people's stories, making stuff up out of whole cloth. This truism comes much clearer on Whitechocolatespaceegg. Two of the most striking tales on the album posit female voices that can't be Phair's (can they?): one a teenager accruing identity in the girls room, the other an experienced wayfarer reassuring her mom that her new man is the right man, ex-wife and all. Both are sisterly in the feminist sense--tender, honest, fed up with the men they can't live without. Three other tracks are sung in the first person by protagonists we're certain are male, including one who serves up the sexiest song on the album in tribute to the gal who blows his horn. And though most of us can happily live without these guys, Phair's tone is friendly, curious, bemused. How could we never have noticed how detached she is? Above all, it's this detachment that makes it seem possible that the self-inflated Uncle Alvarez isn't her relative, that Henry the bartender is a composite or even a figment.
And although it's just as likely that both are drawn from life, as we can't help but assume of the naked report from a marriage in trouble in the impossible year after childbirth, the upshot is that Phair has escaped the confessional expectations of her calling. She still writes as knowledgeably about sex as anybody, Courtney and Polly Jean and even Madonna included, but record geeks will be hard-pressed to keep thinking of her as their blowjob queen, much less imagine they can make her feel as "strangely good" as "Johnny Feelgood,"if that's really her feeling good. There's enough impolite sex in these songs--lovers who turn you on by knocking you down enjoy low public-approval ratings these days--and some scenester remnants too. But from the mother-knot mists of "White Chocolate Space Egg" to the mordant family gossip of "Uncle Alvarez" to the hard-nosed fuck-you of "Shitloads of Money," this is not an indie babe's album, or a blowjob queen's either. It's the work of a songwriter testing her capacity for fictional scenarios, of an upper-middle-class artist who's well past worrying why she fucks and runs--in public, at least.