Hey kids, want to have Liz Phair discourse in 2021?
Because honestly, I don’t - Exile In Guyville is a transgressive and forward-thinking 90s classic … but it was a breakthrough where she could never quite recapture the biting, jagged magic again, mostly an issue of the writing being emulated to the point of cliche but also because the album feels very timelocked to that specific, acrid moment of early 90s feminist indie rock and punk. The problem with her 2000s output and pop pivot on the self-titled and Somebody’s Miracle weren’t that they were bad for what they were trying to do, they just never stood out from the crowd in the way her best material did. And given that Funstyle alternated between tedious and utterly misguided, I had no clue where an eleven year-hiatus would leave Liz Phair, given just how far she was away from her best work - I’ll admit I had rock bottom expectations.
And that was probably the best way to approach this, because while it’s nowhere close to her peak, this is actually pretty decent, even if you can tell that there’s enough misguided clunkiness to the instrumentation to hold it back from getting any better. I don’t know how much of this was due to budget constraints or Phair’s lingering and questionable fondness for synthetic elements she’s never been able to integrate all that well - I imagine the latter because she brought back Brad Wood, the original producer from Exile In Guyville and who has had a storied run for decades now, the biggest standout being his work on Stage Four by Touché Amoré - but the touches of gauzy, warbling synth, underweight drum machines, and questionably synthetic vocal layering do nobody any favours, especially against the ramshackle acoustics and touches of jagged electric guitar. It leaves the feeling of Phair trying to strike the balance between her indie roots and a poppier side for which she’s still very comfortable - and sure, the majority of audiences have absolutely caught up to accepting it, but the integration feels more beholden to an awkward quirkiness than flattering the song, which is also very true of Phair’s writing where she still has a taste for jokes that might feel more funny to her than anyone else.
But I’m inclined to be charitable here because a.) this has been true for decades, b.) it’s more of a stylistic choice rather than a failing and this is absolutely a matter of taste because I know this brand of intentional weirdness will work for some, and c.) the rest of the compositions and writing feel pretty damn good! Not kidding about that - the one benefit to Phair keeping her pop instincts is that she’s got some of her best hooks since the self-titled, and this time she effectively marries it with the lived-in maturity that’s always had a ton of wry charm. It reminds me of Alanis Morissette’s criminally overlooked album from last year in that Phair has nothing left to prove and that gives her more flexibility as she sketches out the complicated stories of existential angst, relationship implosions, substance abuse, and the ramshackle human ugliness where her remarkably even-handed framing has always been her strongest asset, where the guys are still dicks but she observes more dimensions to them even as she holds up the harshest mirror to herself, be it imagining a commiseration with Lou Reed or the sardonic exit of ‘Good Side’ or the deflective angst and stumbling moderation of the title track and ‘Dosage’.
And outside of the album running a little shy on momentum by the very end… yeah, I enjoyed this a decent bit. 7/10 - maybe it’s got the benefit of low expectations, but I had fun with this one, and if this is the Liz Phair we have back… I’m happy to have her.