By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
But if it's a mess, says Phair, then so is she.
"My idea of an album is that I have one song for each trait in my personality. I like to have my whole self out there and to encompass sets of opposites," she says. "Like, I'm a mom, but I'm still interested in being as fiery and sexy as I can possibly be; it's always struck me as sexist--and elitist, frankly--to think that those things can't go together. If you really listen to Guyville, you see that all of the songs contradict each other. You'll have something like 'Girls, Girls, Girls' or 'Fuck and Run' next to something that is a little more quiet and vulnerable. That's something that great artists are really successful at doing. Recognizing that everyone is contradictory, and to deny that or suppress that or be embarrassed about it, is to go against your own nature."
Maybe, but it's hard to know what personality trait or deep artistic impulse is represented by "Favorite," a grating anthem in which Phair likens her lover to an old pair of panties: "You know how you feel?/You feel like my favorite pair of underwear/And I'm slipping you on again tonight." When Phair still lived in the proximity of Guyville, she employed sexuality to reveal something about character. Even "Fuck and Run," her infamous opus on one-night stands, was not really about fucking; it was about bad judgment, low self-esteem and the haze of humiliation that clouds the morning after. The aspiring blow-job queen knew that the most mundane details could be the most revelatory. She was, sometimes, just writing about sex: getting some, wanting to get some and taking stock of the situation after sex had been gotten. But more often, it was about mapping the vast murky territories that lie between men and women--the hurt, excitement, desperation and desire that invariably creep in when they try to get together.
Now her sexuality often feels like the pseudo-sensual posturing of a woman who aspires to join the MTV harem. Newly divorced and a single mom at 36, Phair appears on the cover of the disc nearly nude, just one scrap of a silk scarf away from coitus instrumentus. "Rock Me" is ostensibly about an older woman's desire to cut loose with a younger man, but in the final tally, it's just another do-me ditty: "Baby, if it's all right/Want you to rock me all night/All night/Yeah/Rock...me...all...night." (For the record, she isn't dating a younger man, as "Rock Me" has led some to posit: "I often channel for songs, and that's the exciting thing. I'm never supposed to say that. I'm supposed to toe the party line and say that they're all totally confessional: 'Yeah, I lost my virginity at 12, and I fuck all the time.' Sometimes you just take things and piece them together, and sometimes you just make them up. That's what makes it art.")
Still, despite its many missteps, the new record has its moments. It's not as much of a catastrophe as The New York Times would like us to believe. The tracks that Phair penned on her own are the album's best--suggesting that while she isn't an especially prolific songwriter, and while she flubbed big time by allowing the Matrix to get its mitts all over her, she's still got some ink left in her pen. "Bionic Eyes," a cynical reading of an adult woman's relationship to her own sexuality, and "Little Digger," a plaintive and personal appeal to her son, who's dealing with the idea of his divorced mom dating men other than his dad, suggest the wit, honesty and flawed humanity that made her endearing in the first place. But Phair's sparkling moments are sporadic and, in some cases, hidden: Embedded in the Liz Phair CD is comeandgetit, a scrappy, four-song downloadable EP that is likely to resonate with older fans. That is, if they stick around long enough to hear it.
"I know some people feel personally affronted by this record, but ultimately, that is not my responsibility," Phair says. "We're talking about my creative decisions--an album! One album. That's all it is. I've never been able to understand why everything I do is examined so seriously. It's like people link things in their lives to mine.
"Ultimately, I really don't think your identity should be so wrapped up in what kind of music you like," she says. "There should be other things, other core values, that are more important. And if music is such a huge fixation that it defines you, then I think maybe you need to get a life."