Letters and Sodas
By Joshua Clover
There are many stories where someone tries to apply strict rational methodology to art; Komar & Melamid’s composite paintings are a recent example, based on polls about favorite colors and shapes, etc. Such experiments are often funny for the same reason they also carry a lot of pathos—because the whole deal with art is it’s not science, it’s not a finite set of knowable moves. That’s why Marcel Duchamp quit and spent his last years playing chess.
Liz Phair’s record is unbearably sad, and a little funny, for similar reasons. The qualities identified with her genius—aw, you know what they are—are present in sufficient quantity. It should add up to something, but in this case there’s no hot white sum. Math won’t get you anywhere.
Pining for the anti-aesthetics of yore, Matadorks will grumble that the lifeless feeling comes because the record’s too processed, too smoothed—especially knowing it was sent back to the drawing board more times than Bart Simpson. True, Liz Phair is riddled with production and co-writing credits for the Matrix, the studio slickers who made Avril Lavigne the great Canadian she is today. But previous outing whitechocolatespaceegg was no slouch in the gloss category; it sounded a lot more like a jagged little pill than an exile in guyville. And it was made after Phair went major-label, married and mared, and bought a white picket fence—all the usual suspects of selling out to the man. It was also a magnificent record.
So how can you explain the pandemic nonmagnificence of Liz Phair? David Kahne (the guy who rejected Wilco’s Pazz & Jop-winning Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) once said Phair was a poster child for the cred/ambition paradox: “Indie bands want to sell a million records, but they want to sell them to 50,000 people.” Liz Phair, with its stiff anti-indie bids for radio superpresence—like lead single “Why Can’t I?”—is more likely to sell 50,000 records to a million people.
“How does it feel to be back on American soil? Here ain’t no blood for oil,” she sang on a basement demo a Gulf War back. “When they tip me over, they better tip me well, cuz free love is a whole lot of bullshit. Hello, sailor.” This is the kind of juice once found in her provocations, right alongside “Blowjob Queen.” Now, natch, there’s a song called “Hot White Cum.” But it doesn’t sound like provocation, or brazen honesty. It sounds like filler.
As with early Meat Puppets, Phair once didn’t seem to know how songs worked; tracking their unpredictable advance was sweet as watching baby’s first steps. If they pitched down the stairs, well, that was kind of fun; they weren’t real babies with tender fontanels after all. Now the songs pretty much snap into the Matrix. From “Extraordinary” to “My Favorite Underwear,” the choruses show up like clockwork, and if you want to take it to the bridge, you always know where to go. It’s not a record you’ll get lost in or surprised by. You’ll just find, repeatingly, the kind of slight melodic pleasure you can get—with less social apparatus—from Anggun or Shakira.
I’ll always leave the light on for Liz; listen, Neil Young’s made about 20 bad records, and we still love him. But it’s grievous to be confronted so abjectly with the fragility of art-making—how all the elements can still be there, all the signs of genius, but no amount of calculation can render them vivid and compelling. It’s enough to drive you to chess.
Soaking in It
By Jane Dark
Seasons change, you’ve got to rearrange. In 2001, Britney crossed the border into skeezy-ville, and I could barely remember Christina, so it felt like P!nk came to my emotional rescue. She was the exclamation point of life from Winter into the next Spring, but there’s something not entirely serious about her. Sometimes you’re bitter and confused, as opposed to sarcastic and boppy. And there’s something Autumnal about the name “Avril,” plus she’s not like a conservatory girl trying to be cool like Vanessa and Michelle. Still, fall turns to summer once again, and that’s where Liz Phair comes in, as a kind of Avril Lavigne with more adult lyrics. I don’t buy the “Xbox” name-dropping, but when she says “We’re already wet and we’re gonna go swimming,” well, I’m ready to soak up the sun (though I wish she didn’t say “We haven’t fucked yet but my head’s spinning” a minute later—overshare, I got it, OK?). The best song is called “When You’re in Love With Me,” involving a heroic journey to “the dirtiest apartment you could find.” Even that turns out to be a love song, pretty adorable—she has this blended way of singing, like there’s a romance-making turbine inside her matter-of-factory. I can’t quite tell if “Hot White Cum” is supposed to be for real, or is mocking beauty tips from magazines, but as I have reached the age where ambiguity is even funner than double entendres, that’s OK. Ambiguity is the new maturity.
It feels like I’ve moved from singer to singer in a natural development, not at all like a vast machine has laid out a long series of compact discs like bright stepping stones leading me across some nameless river toward who knows where. I’m just telling you how it feels.
Shining Some Glory
By Robert Christgau
Many are scandalized that Liz Phair “turned to” (the correct verb, as in “a life of crime”) Avril Lavigne producers the Matrix for her first album in five years. As someone who likes the idea of Avril Lavigne but finds her music too slow and mushy for faux punk, I was worried, not scandalized—and more worried to learn that Phair had also turned to Pete Yorn’s producer and Aimee Mann’s husband, who’ve yet to give the world a “Sk8er Boi” between them. But I wasn’t scandalized then either. Artists will sleep with anybody they think is good for a ride. With Liz Phair, that goes double.
So then I played the advance and stopped worrying. Liz Phair may not be her best album, but don’t bet on it. For sure it’s the one I want to hear right now, next month, all year. It includes no bad songs—at worst a couple of dubious or uninspired ones—and four or five every bit as indelible as “Flower” (which, Christina fans, is where Ms. Phair famously aspired to the title “blowjob queen” a decade ago). Unfortunately, my promo didn’t indicate who oversaw what. So just for fun I guessed. My reasoning on the five great ones, in ascending order:
• “Extraordinary”: lead track IDing Phair as “average everyday sane psycho supergoddess.” Unrequited love lyric with nice audience overtones (“Stand in the street, yell out my heart/To make to make you love me”), also “So I still take the trash out/Does that make me too normal for you?”), big mushy catchy pseudoheavy verse, chorus catchier than that. Definitely Matrix.
• “Favorite”: compares old lover to “my favorite underwear” in over-the-top metaphor (“leave you lying on the bedroom floor,” “thought we were falling apart”). Themewise I’d say Yorn’s guy Walt Vincent; also, would the Matrix risk her naked voice enunciating “You’re like my favorite underwear” or closing with “Slipping you on again tonight”? Quite possibly—radio eats up the risqué these days. And the loud drums-guitar-voices intro-chorus sounds hitbound, theoretically. Matrix again.
• “Hot White Cum”: official title “H.W.C.” Cross-collateralization notwithstanding, Capitol wouldn’t waste Matrix bucks on the line “All you do is fuck me every day and night.” Strummed intro, clear unaugmented vocal, cheery electro-handclaps behind “Give me your hot white cum” chorus, harmonica solo. Could be Michael Penn, but Aimee Mann couldn’t rock this hard on a motorized hobbyhorse. Make it Vincent.
• “Little Digger”: Liz’s kid finds her in bed with guy not his dad. Classic Phair—spare instrumentation, wavery pitch, strange melody precluding the Trisha Yearwood cover the lyric deserves. Zero Clear Channel potential. Note awkwardly repetitive (hence emphatic) directness of must-quote verse: “I’ve done the damage/The damage is done/I pray to God/ That I’m the damaged one.” What Mann (also womann) oughta be. Penn.
• “Rock Me”: Liz screws a piece of young stuff more senseless than he was when he started. Not the lead single only because everyone’s chicken to find out that Phair’s bid for the gold didn’t work. The chorus rules; its “rock me all night long” evasion has been radio-ready for half a century. The blowjob queen’s most sex-positive song yet. Gotta be Matrix.
Scandalized? How dumb. I can’t explain the technical stuff, but I’d describe the Matrix’s sound with Lavigne as “generalized.” No matter who produced what (which since I did get all five right must mean something), that’s how this album comes across—keybs everywhere, voice big and in tune. Only with Phair, this generalization—while definitely ambitious, tsk tsk—is also an act of love (toward Christina fans and such) and a reaffirmation of the sexual appetites she’s indulged since she was exiled in Guyville, a sobriquet she devised to insult the indie world oh so long ago. Five years later, she put in quality time as a matron-artiste; now, single again at 36, she further insults the indie world by successfully fusing the personal and the universal, challenging lowest-common-denominator values even as it fellates them. You want her to express herself? She just did.