Voices Classics: Phair moved from suburbs to rock glory with Exile

By Matt Zakosek

Almost nothing you’ve heard about Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville is of any consequence. Critics like to zero in on two details: the album’s structure, which Phair bravely patterned after the Rolling Stones’s Exile on Main St., and its frank sexuality, which is often disparaged by critics—despite its liberating effect on her music. (If I hear the phrase “I want to be your blowjob queen” quoted one more time, I will scream.)

Neither of these factors is the reason Guyville is such a success. It seems that every week, we’re inundated with a bevy of new singer/songwriters looking to make their mark in the competitive music business. Hell, two of them toured last summer with Phair on the unfortunately titled “Chicks with Attitude” Tour: Charlotte Martin and Katy Rose. But Liz Phair was—is—the real deal. Screw those so-called chicks; they’re barely even embryos.

Guyville opens with one of the best break-up anthems ever: “6’1″.” It’s an admonition to a lover who crushed her spiritually while propping her up on the outside. Crunchy guitar, honestly insightful lyrics, and Phair’s deadpan delivery make this one a keeper. “I kept standing six feet one, instead of five feet two,” she laments. “And I loved my life, but I hated you.” The emphasis on her diminutive status as a source of empowerment is enough to make you want to throw away her heels.

“Help Me Mary” follows in a blazing two-minute delivery, setting up one of Guyville’s recurring themes: brief sonic blasts that are over almost as soon as they began. “Glory” and “Girls! Girls! Girls!” are so short, you wonder if they’d be downgraded to interlude status on a rap album. But Phair’s musical experimentation works: “Glory” is smartly sandwiched by “Help Me Mary” and the eerie “Dance of the Seven Veils,” while “Girls! Girls! Girls!” serves as both literal and figurative middle-ground for the raunchy “Fuck and Run” and the bittersweet “Divorce Song.”

Yet almost all of these descriptions sell Phair short. Guyville is no gimmicky concept album, incorporating as many emotions as possible to please every mood. Each song on this double CD is forceful and reserved, jubilant and despondent. “Never Said” works just as effectively whether you’re celebrating or feeling sorry for yourself. Piano ballads like “Canary” and “Shatter” can be seen as haunting elegies for relationships gone wrong—or quietly inspiring ballads from a woman who finally dropped that deadbeat boyfriend.

For all its mastery, however, some of cuts on Guyville reveal the weakness of their composition. It’s the musical equivalent of clothing that shows its seams. “Johnny Sunshine” is a fan favorite, but the jarring contrast between the verses and the chorus has never quite worked for me. Similarly, “Flower”—origin of Phair’s oft-repeated “blowjob queen” designation—overlaps two vocal tracks (one a coquettish soprano, the other a growling contralto) for shock value more than musical integrity. It begins to telegraph the album’s themes whereas, on the rest of the tracks, Phair allows them to unfold gracefully.

It feels weird to type the aforementioned criticisms, because Exile in Guyville is an album that’s greater than the sum of its parts. The easy answer is that Liz had the structure of Exile in Main St. to fall back on, providing the disc with an epic grandeur and saving it from the disjointedness that plagued Girlysound. But those who credit Phair’s thematic successes to the Stones are sorely mistaken. That theory always seemed like fodder for the rock critics anyway. Guyville is Phair’s product through-and-through, the alternative-rock equivalent of Sylvia Plath knocking the literary world on its ass with an artistic expression of her innermost thoughts and feelings.

Phair ranks among the best singer/songwriters of her generation because when her lyrics are committed to paper, they read as real poetry. She takes well worn themes and addresses them in the most satisfying way possible. Pop music is often forgiven for its clichés or, worse yet, embraced for them; the idea is that feelings that would sound trite if spoken are somehow redeemed if sung. Phair recognizes this for the defeatist cop-out it is. Couplets like “Sea monkeys, do monkeys/ Story of my life” (from “Gunshy”) operate on multiple levels—in this case, the playful use of homonym “sea” for “see”; the inspired reimagining of the old saw “Monkey see, monkey do”; and finally, the mention of a fleeting ’70s kids’ fad to inform the theme of nostalgic melancholy.

There’s so little space left, and so many awesome songs I’ve yet to mention. The eviscerating “Soap Star Joe,” which I’ve wanted to play for every self-important hipster strutting around campus; the haunting “Explain It to Me”; and the deceptively simple “Mesmerizing,” which will burn itself into your brain more than any disposable track from the latest pop superstar. And then there’s the pair of amazing closers: “Stratford-on-Guy” and “Strange Loop,” which manage to be discouraging and hopeful at the same time. “Strange Loop,” in particular, makes you want to immediately press play to re-experience the album in its entirety.

Forget the lesser follow-ups (Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg, which are still better than most anything out there) and the controversial Liz Phair, known alternately as Phair’s “cross-over” or “sell-out” disc, depending on whom you’re asking. Exile in Guyville is the best album of the ’90s and a worthy addition to anyone’s record collection. The Stones and the sex are just the marketing hooks for a CD that gets better with each listen.