Exile in Adultville
On her great but not-quite-brilliant 1993 debut Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair sang in "Fuck and Run" of the longing for "the kind of guy who makes love 'cause he's in it." A year later, on the good but not-quite-great Whip-Smart, she yearned to "Go West," hoping to find something she could neither pinpoint nor say for sure even existed -- maybe love, maybe contentment, or, as she tells herself, maybe just "something to do." Whatever the case, both albums were centered around what Phair wanted and what she didn't have, with songs that expressed with bitter frankness the things eating at her insides, from failed relationships and fast fucks to infidelities, romantic confusion, and emotional turmoil. Inward-looking almost to a fault but tempered by Phair's angry humor and stunning insight and wordplay, Guyville and Whip-Smart presented the most evocative and uncomfortably forthright world view from any female artist since Chrissie Hynde, whose rock and roll swagger and face-front, no-shit attitude was as much a part of Phair's work as the confessional spillage of Joni Mitchell. Her writing spanned the conceptual gamut, with Phair assuming the role of vulnerable ingenue ("6'1"," "Help Me Mary"), shameless tart ("Flower"), sexual politician ("Girls! Girls! Girls!"), lovers both devastated ("Divorce Song") and ecstatic ("Supernova"), and confused, existential young adult ("Go West," "Stratford-on-Guy").
Now, standing squarely in the center of adulthood, with both husband and child, the 31-year-old Phair has made an album that has broadened her artistic scope lyrically and musically. Not only does the bulk of whitechocolatespaceegg suggest that Phair has found something resembling solace in her new role as mother and wife, the album's sparkling production indicates she is determined to break from the confining, success-shy indie-rock underworld she helped redefine with Guyville.
Although overseen by three producers -- Phair, her long-time collaborator Brad Wood, and Scott Litt -- whitechocolate holds together as a whole even as it wanders the musical map, making only passing nods to her lo-fi roots, from the faux hip-hop groove beneath the title cut to the L.A. folk-pop of the beautiful "Uncle Alvarez." "Love Is Nothing" is a gloriously catchy pop gem draped in ringing guitars and layers of organ, while the intricately constructed "Big Tall Man" benefits from the kick of full-blown production and chunks of ragged power chords that deliver the chorus. "Baby Got Going" chugs along like a redux rockabilly freight train, and the rhythm-shifting coda on "Only Son" might be the most exciting little slice of rock and roll in Phair's catalogue. And the nonsinging three-fourths of R.E.M. help make "Fantasize" sound like a worth-retrieving outtake from the lushly acoustic Automatic for the People.
A more daring musical construction than done by any of Phair's Lilith Fair contemporaries, the expansive sound of whitechocolatespaceegg offers a potent antidote to the synthesized sheen of Sarah McLaughlin and the histrionic gruel of Natalie Merchant, as well as the punk-rock din of Sleater-Kinney and whoever's left from the riot grrrl thing.
That's not to say Phair has lost the sardonic bite and acidic wit of Guyville's oft-quoted "Flower" ("I want to be your blowjob queen," et cetera, et cetera) and the jaded erotica of Whip-Smart's "Chopsticks." On "Shitloads of Money" she reprises a highlight from her pre-Guyville Girly Sound tapes -- "Combo Platter" -- with forceful guitars and drums underpinning the humorously cynical chorus. Assuming the voice of a "Big Tall Man," Phair details a list of macho thrills -- drag-racing, lawn-mowing, beer, cigarettes -- before drolly admitting the obvious: "I can be a complicated communicator." Even better but far less funny is "Johnny Feelgood," whitechocolate's bravely chosen first single. It's a deceptively beautiful character study-cum-love story set to a frisky beat and built around heartwarming lines such as "Johnny makes me feel strangely good about myself" and "I never met a man who was so pretty inside." It's only after you're sucked into the seemingly blissful tale, thanks in part to Phair's clever run-on vocal, that you realize you're hearing a battered, masochistic woman chronicling a horrifically abusive relationship: "I hate him all the time/But I still get up/When he knocks me down/And he orders me around." In "Polyester Bride" we hear who could easily be the same woman a few years earlier, fretting about the future with her bartender friend, who repeatedly tells the skeptical barfly: "You've got time."
It's a different kind of writing for Phair, a sign that, having mastered the art of self-obsession, she's finally learning how to look at the world from someplace other than her own bedroom window. (And she's learned to do it well: Witness the brief but expert surveying of her high school friends in the "Girls' Room," or the mother-daughter dialogue in "What Makes You Happy.") Still, whitechocolatespaceegg works best when Phair sorts through the changes inevitably induced by marriage and motherhood. For the most part the changes have done her good. The title cut -- a reference to her baby's bald pate -- could be about either or both, with Phair's achingly plaintive voice testifying that "Once I felt you I couldn't put you down" and "Every rock and tree and leaf abound with your face." "Fantasize," one of Phair's sweetest songs, offers a snapshot of romantic bliss, equal parts idealized ("He's a special guy/Kind of sentimental inside") and idyllic ("I lie awake every night/Thinking about you").
On "Love Is Nothing" and "Go On Ahead," Phair looks past that idyllic bliss, focusing instead on the complexities of post-honeymoon life and love and coming up with the most unblinking work of her three-album career. The former captures the doubts and fears that arrive when love's afterglow has dimmed and you're left to deal with the workaday realities of a relationship, when the little things become not so little and the good things fall too easily from sight: "Love is nothing, nothing, nothing like they say/You gotta pick up the little pieces every day."
"Go On Ahead" digs even deeper into the same ground, acknowledging the weight of parenthood ("It's a birth that's changed our lives") and the emotional ebb and flow of living together and loving together even as you're drifting slowly apart. "And it goes around in circles/One night is lovely, the next is brutal/And you and I are way over our heads with this one." It's a million miles and many years removed from the navel-gazing that marred some of Phair's early work -- dark, bitter, intensely personal yet universal for anyone who has grappled with the reality of starting a life with someone you may or may not know as well you think or hope. Liz Phair built her career on the confusion and fear that arrive unexpectedly in the search for love, but as she realizes throughout whitechocolatespaceegg, it's not always easy when you find it.
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