When Liz Phair’s debut album, Exile In Guyville, was released in 1993, she was a critic’s darling and an indie rock superhero for her gutsy lyrical bravado. While the album was a modest commercial success, it was named the number one album of that year by Spin Magazine and the Village Voice’s notorious Pazz & Jop critics’ poll, and in 1999 Pitchfork said it was the fifth best album of the 1990s. But a decade later, on Phair’s self-titled 4th album where her record company required that she write four tracks with The Matrix, best known for collaborations with Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne, she was written off as a rock has-been and pop sellout. It’s been eleven years since Phair’s last album, Funstyle, which she self-released as an indie download with the disclaimer on her website that “you were never supposed to hear these songs.”
While Phair has continued to tour routinely with a new album to promote, in 2018 Matador Records released a 25th anniversary retrospective of her debut album, including remastered demos from her earlier work under the moniker Girly Sound. In 2019 she released the first of two memoirs on Random House, titled “Horror Stories.” The impetus to return to the studio, Phair told an interviewer, was a call from her manager after the deaths of Prince and Bowie asking if she died what would be her musical legacy? Her response was that it shouldn’t be Funstyle, saying she would “not make that mistake again.” To record, Soberish, Phair has created a strong collection of songs framed by her melodic sensibility and narrative storytelling, which feel autobiographical to some degree.
The record opens with one of her strongest pop song hooks, “Spanish Doors,” a divorce song where she wonders “What about the kids? What about the house? What about our friends? What do I do now?” She may not want to think about it, which means she doesn’t “want to be anywhere/that you and I used to go.” One of Phair’s unique skills is telling sad tales in light, poppy sing-along songs. In “The Game” she chastises a lover who is less than fair, while “Good Side,” acknowledges there are “so many ways to fuck up a life/I tried to be original,” before attempting to end a relationship in such a way that “we won’t have regrets.” “In There” is a sentimental look back at a relationship that wasn’t to be but still “I miss the way that we kiss, I confess,” while “Ba Ba Ba” and the title track explore the feelings around a one-night stand, or at least the hope to connect. “Soberish” also suggests the issue of allowing alcohol to substitute for courage, and that theme continues in “Dosage,” where she suggests that balance is likely better that “sitting drunk at this bar/I haven’t been back here in thrity-two years/Now that I’m older and I’m facing my fear.”
Musically, Phair is in pretty strong form throughout this seventh studio album, tapping that original, gutsy approach that brought her to the party, and rejoining with producer Brad Wood who had recorded her first two albums and part of her third, as well as worked with Smashing Pumpkins, Better Than Ezra, and The Bangles. Together they strike a fun balance between Phair’s pop song prowess and the darker, more real to life inclinations in her story telling. It’s a well-crafted sound that doesn’t polish away her natural rough edges, but using strings, horns, and a drum machine when it fits the musical construction. Mostly, though, it’s traditional guitars, and smart harmony vocals that enhance Phair’s choruses. On “Spanish Doors,” she recalls Sheryl Crow, for whom she added harmony vocals to “Soak Up the Sun.”
In “Hey Lou,” Phair puts herself in the voice of Laurie Anderson the wife of Lou Reed trying to entice him out of one of his “assholic distempers.” She imitates an acoustic guitar riff that feels like something Reed might have played, and echoes Anderson’s unique performance style as she repeats “how did that work out for you?” In “Sheridan Road,” another acoustic leaning number, Phair revisits the Chicago neighborhood where she got her start. While the second half of the album moves toward moodier tones, the closer is “Bad Kitty,” a rocking reminder that this is the woman who’s earliest alt-rock introduction was “Fuck & Run.” “My pussy is a big dumb cat,” she sings at the front, only to conclude that “Misbehaving is the one thing that always makes me grateful the Goddess gave me eight more lives… no regrets.” And if Phair is seriously worried about her legacy, there’s no reason to think this need be her last but Soberish is strong enough a work that she can rest easy, without regrets.
Key Tracks: “Spanish Doors” / “Good Side” / “Bad Kitty”
Artists With Similar Fire: Aimee Mann / Sheryl Crow / Alanis Morrisette
-Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb