On Saturday, lizphair.com suddenly had a new album available via download for a mere $5.99, with one streaming track as a sample, or maybe a warning: “Bollywood” features our heroine rapping in different voices over, yes, a Bollywood tabla. This, in addition to the low asking price, prnt scrn/ctrl+p cover art, and simple enough title (Funstyle), begs you not to take the result too seriously, even if it’s her first album in half a decade. But nothing is so simple with Liz Phair, who’s incurred bad blood from critics and longtime fans in ways unseen in pop since perhaps Neil Young’s vocoders-to-country ’80s.
On the release of Phair’s last album, Somebody’s Miracle, Pitchfork‘s Amy Phillips wrote, “In hindsight, the 0.0 bomb was wasted on [Liz Phair], because it’s much better than Somebody’s Miracle.” It’s not difficult to imagine that same approach applied to Funstyle, which for most people will make either of those earlier records look like Exile in Guyville. Though for us superfans, that still sounds about right: we liked Somebody’s Miracle and loved Liz Phair (which launched a Matrix album to #38 on Pazz & Jop–ahead of the Johnny Cash album with “Hurt”). Some of us may even come to enjoy Funstyle, which, if not her worst, is definitely her weirdest.
“Smoke,” the opening sounds-and-voices collage, is more than self-aware: “It’s career suicide,” yelps a disembodied huckster, soon followed by an allegorical skit in which Phair isn’t permitted into a venue because she’s not the guest list, and doesn’t even know which list to be on. Then more satirical industry chatter: “Yeah, we could give a track to iTunes,” “I don’t know John Mayer,” etc. It’s not a song, really, thought it does bring to mind Frank Zappa, Ani DiFranco, and Nellie McKay all at once. Then we’re off to Bollywood.
Tracks three and four are normal: confessional pop still sharper than any peer this side of Lucinda Williams. Then the programmed pop of “My My,” which, as Maura Johnston has already pointed out, sounds like Kelly Clarkson’s “Miss Independent” (with a bit of Nikka Costa). Then another pair of normal songs. Then another collage with more vocal impressions called “Beat Is Up.” Then two more normal songs, probably the best here: “And He Slayed Her” starts off like U2’s “So Cruel” before transforming into a New Orleans rocker, while the loping, radio-ready “Satisfied” can hang with good Jenny Lewis. The final track is called “U Hate It” and mocks us (mostly male) critics: “I think I’m a genius/You’re being a peen-ius.”
Such jokes are presumably there so Phair can a) embarrass us, b) dare her detractors into snobbishly attacking her again, and c) let her have some fun as she eases back into the pressures of record-making. Anyone who really wants to actually like Funstyle can omit the lousiest tracks and regard it as a decent EP. But her biggest fans have always applauded Phair’s incisive in-jokes, which date back to the now-benchmark Guyville, then a punching bag for Steve Albini and (mostly male) Chicago scenesters. 2003’s “My Bionic Eyes,” was especially playful, equating her critics to one-night stands: “These are the same old guys I never had any use for/Beyond the feeling of pleasure.”
But listening to Funstyle, it’s another couplet that comes to mind: “As I got light as a feather they got stiff as a board/I can’t feel any more, but I can fake it forever.” You might feel wooden listening to her inconsequential, studio-fun bullshit, but she’s not gonna let anyone tell her she can’t still fake it.