I bet Liz Phair long ago identified with the girl whose tits were too big in fifth grade just as she did with the one who was good at math. She internalized the threat they posed and enjoyed the way they messed with other people’s expectations. That they were often the same girl was a female epiphany of my generation. Phair in turn invented a protagonist who could fuck and run at age 12, be bored with the process by her early twenties, and live to tell about it—all in a guitar-strummed plaint with a hook. Disgust was her artistic capital; tormented by roommates, she prayed they would help her “breed my disgust into fame,” and they did. Phair’s privileged background in Winnetka, Illinois, and the unconditional love of her adoptive parents tempered the nail-biting urgency of her persona. Even though song after song trashed the eons-old myth that a well-fucked female kept her mouth shut, their anger was grounded in a vision of equality that promised better sex and more love. For a while she got off on this: “I totally fed off the whole idea that I had done something brash that was hard for a woman to do. My little tail wagged.” But soon it got old, and she went after the “Shitloads of Money” she’d never denied wanting. For the first time, she was willing to risk a one-night stand where she wasn’t in control.
On Somebody’s Miracle, Phair is more confident than on her previous mass-appeal bid, 2003’s Liz Phair. She’s split the difference between the Matrix and Michael Penn by working with John Mayer/Jason Mraz producer John Alagio, and along the way she’s discovered that there are other ways to be honest than taking your clothes off—although when the subject calls for a cock tease, she’s ready. Guitars humping, her voice at its best sexy growl, she’s a temptress for a sucker who doesn’t know what’s coming: “I’ve got my own thing/Feel it, it is strong/As short as people think/But really it is long.” But at least two other strong tracks convince because they lack resolution: the loving look back at an extramarital affair in “Leap of Innocence” and the Stones send-up “Why I Lie.” Phair passes off this nasty retort as a love song, reveling in the naked truth of her motives, “predatory instinct and simple ill will.” Repeat after me: The man she lies to isn’t good enough for her anyway. And while we’re on the subject, would the self-professed blowjob queen consider resurrecting Joan Jett’s hilarious “Coney Island Whitefish,” or is it beneath her to acknowledge such common origins or admit that she wasn’t the first pissed-off chick on the block?
Although there are two saccharine pro-happiness songs I’d just as soon never hear again, there’s also “Giving It All,” a rave-up that seems to liberate Phair. No longer married to the gloomy, grainy sound that defined her, she’s also stretched the singer-songwriter values that have inspired this divorced mom pushing 40 to pen tunes ever since she was little. As with the last record’s “Little Digger,” the civility of the defeated alcoholic in “Table for One” puts the listener up close and personal with a subject too many of us would rather pass off as someone else’s problem. But the gem is “Closer to You.” No wonder Phair prefaced her current tour with an acoustic go-round of small houses. Unlike the sweeter title track, which poses Ms. Liz as an outsider looking in on happy couples, this one plants her firmly mid-relationship, both wanting more and admitting that intimacy can be off-putting. She believes that mutual respect provides love its essential balance: “I don’t need your rock and roll to stay in tune.” Meet Liz Phair. She knows who she is. Do you?