As many of you know, Liz Phair's debut album Exile in Guyville, is turning 20. That one of my favorite albums ever has turned this corner is supposed to make me feel old. And it makes one ask the question: "When will the genius who made this album ever make a second one?" Sorry for the snark, but one must occasionally torment his heroes, and after listening to subsequent outings by Phair, I feel like I've earned the right to be sarcastic. Oh sure, she's shown flashes of brilliance here and there, but she was never again as focused as she was on this album, whose cohesive themes of relationships as politics, of female sexuality as a form of forced role play, remain so strongly observed that I still believe they are misunderstood to this day. When I read reviews of Guyville, even in this decade, I bristle when I hear such things as "This is the album where she was really being herself and playing from the heart." It was obvious to me then and now that Phair was speaking through different female characters on the album, some showing extreme vulnerability, some showing brazen manipulative streaks, some showing the virtues of female sexual aggressiveness. It seemed as powerfully observed as experienced. Take the "Divorce Song," a take on a doomed romance that tries to capture the pride of two lovers who don't want to give up even though they should. Or the line from "Strange Loop," "I always wanted you. I only wanted more than I knew," which is probably the cruelest, saddest, most brutally honest observation one can make about the reasons many people part, even good ones, even people who really love each other. Despite her first-person treatments, Phair is always standing both inside and outside these observations. If you thought of her only as the girl who sang the dirty blow job lyrics, seems to me the prurience was all yours, not hers.
But she wasn't without empathy. She let her insecurities hang out more than her boobs, and that's why people fell in love with her. Furthermore, she couched this in the kind of guitar playing that I would call almost willfully naive, aggressively unknowing. She played chords no professional musician would play because they might have been called discordant at best or just plain wrong. Some of them are ingenious--like the way the album uses a plagal cadence to start the album off on "6'1"" and slyly completes it in the last riff of the last song, "Strange Loop," neatly allowing the musical and emotional promises of the album to come to fruition at the same time. There are also riffs I still can't figure out after years of trying to deconstruct them on a guitar. "Dance of the Seven Veils," one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard--ever--is a piece I've given up trying to figure out. It turns me into an infant, sends me back into my fetal dream state whenever it comes on.
For those reasons I haven't been too concerned with Phair's long and sometimes embarrassing post-Guyville decline. It seems the more she learned about the guitar, the worse she's become. The critics who always disliked her (there were a few vocal ones 20 years ago) called her stuff self-indulgent and preconceived, and if they had heard anything other than Guyville, they were damn near right on the money. Her searching guitar chords became as aimless as her strange imagery: "six dick pimps" and "polyester brides" and lots of other confusing crap. It didn't help that she was already walking a wobbly rail, trying to make rock music for adults, which people like Lou Reed might tell you is a treacherous way to make a living. Occasionally she hit a gold streak--the way she observes her son's chance run-in with her new lover on the album Liz Phair (in the song "Little Digger.") But her guileless approach seemed to work against her more than for her as the years went on and the suits came in and tried to save her career (making her work with the Matrix, known for working with acts like Avril Lavigne and Britney Spears--not the kind of people who are going to gently unravel the emotional nuances of sexually ravenous single moms). Phair's own ambitions for "big sounds" also made it feel like she was being pulled in different directions artistically, and you can't blame that on a record company.
Why do I not care? Because with one album, she had already done her share. Exile in Guyville isn't an album. It's a gift. A gift to the world. And I don't feel old hearing it now, don't feel any kind of cheap nostalgia--which is unfortunately the main reason a lot of people listen to music--because, like the brush marks on a gestural painting, the music and lyrics on Guyville still feel alive to the world, still address contemporary issues and will keep giving to the here and now. Compare anything on Alanis Morrisette's first album, which ranges from ranting to coyness to cuteness and whose most famous song increasingly grates for its loud and repeated inaccurate use of the word "ironic."
So yes, Liz, I'm waiting for you to make a (real) second album. But if you don't, I promise I'll never ask what have you done for me lately. Happy birthday, Guyville!