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 Guyville wasn’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, Guyville was 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 Juvenilia EP 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-Smart because they hoped it was Guyville will now underrate Whitechocolatespaceegg because they’re afraid it’s Whip-Smart, I say it’s the light at the end of Phair’s tunnel. Guyville was 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.
While this may seem a predictable postalt retreat, give Phair some credit–she’s too cranky, and sui generis, to pigeonhole so easily. Her firm reluctance to fit in was writ large last month at Lilith Fair, where she led a band of mufti-clad rockboys in a backless cocktail dress that accentuated her svelte, blond, well-groomed good looks. Having announced her newly achieved status as a suburban matron–one most of her audience would eventually share with her, Indigo Girls CDs and all–she proceeded to flout proprieties no one else but Missy Elliott gave a thought to. There was “Johnny Feelgood” knocking her down, and there was “Dance of the Seven Veils,” its “I’m a real cunt in spring” wafting sweetly and obscenely over Jones Beach. What’s more, she rocked a far harder set than there was any reason to expect of a notoriously stiff live performer, not to mention any of her sisters on the bill–leaving room for hope that years late she’d taken the prime tenet of indieland to heart and forged her music in the crucible of a working band.
In fact, Phair’s not ready for that pigeonhole either. Half produced by old DIY partner Brad Wood, half by R.E.M. hand Scott Litt, Whitechocolatespaceegg is the music of an artist who shares an indigenous habitat with record geeks–the kind of bedroom that’s longer on stereo equipment than ceiling mirrors. Her model isn’t the bar raveup but the home demo–spare, halting, blatantly if not always practically hooked (is that Lamaze breathing on that rhythm track?). The new record isn’t as acutely realized as Guyville, but forgive it a few vacancies and it will generate the same aura of inevitability over time. Wood’s productions are stronger on the whole primarily because Phair gave him the surefire songs (bet he would have flubbed the mystic title tune, which will grow on you), and without undermining the conception, the overall sound has filled out. But given a vocal affect that rarely gets nearer to warmth than intellectual sympathy and is never, ever bubbly, the resemblance to pop is strictly formal. The shitloads of money Phair scored when she signed her post-Guyville deal are all the shitloads she’s liable to see for a while; the musical attractions here signify artistic advance only, with all commercial projections speculative.
Figure she’s a classy enough broad to settle. In a year when women-in-rock from Madonna to Courtney to Lucinda to Polly Jean will all stake claims, she’s laid out her own turf. She’s cool in the existential rather than scenester sense–as anticonfessional as Randy Newman himself. Yet as she grabs her songs from life and nowhere, she’s credibly concerned as well. She’s determined to remain a smart woman in a man’s world.