Liz Phair was always a pop star in disguise. Beneath the veneer of lo-fi production and sexual frankness of her first three albums, there lay a singer-songwriter who fused personal revelations with universal catchy appeal. On her self-titled album, Liz Phair, the indie rock icon took that sensibility to its natural conclusion, achieving the kind of mainstream success she openly sought and sparking a fierce debate about authenticity in the music world that still rages on.
Released in 2003, the album was considered a reinvention of sorts. Phair had followed up her widely beloved classic, Exile In Guyville, with two subsequent studio albums, Whip-Smart in 1994 and whitechocolatespaceegg in 1998, that hinted at her pop tendencies but were still embraced as indie-pop fare. In the five years following whitechocolatespaceegg, Phair was in a very different place. She’d gotten divorced, sold her home in Chicago and decamped to Los Angeles with her son. Not to be confused with a breakup record, a divorce record is an entirely different beast. While Liz Phair doesn’t contain the same vitriol or anguish as Marvin Gaye’s Hear My Dear or Phil Collins’ Face Value, it does deal in the unforeseen complications of adult life. It just happens to be packaged in sunny-side-up pop-rock.
The genesis of the album was starkly different than her previous releases. Phair first worked with the film composer Michael Penn (Aimee Mann, The Wallflowers) before turning to singer-songwriter Pete Yorn and his producer R Walt Vincent. They recorded a number of tracks for the album, but the label (and Phair) were still searching for a hit. They turned to Avril Lavigne’s songwriting and production team The Matrix, resulting in the radio-friendly hits ‘Why Can’t I’, ‘Rock Me’, ‘Extraordinary’ and ‘Favorite’.
In her bid for a wider audience, Phair also learned the downsides of hero worship. Those who obsessively connected with her first three records were taken aback by this seemingly about-face in style. They wanted the raw, confessional songwriting of a 26-year-old and the rough-and-tumble recording of Phair’s early bedroom tapes. What they got, however, was the same brand of candour and bucking of trends that she was always known for.
This was no ‘Sk8er Boi’; this was an adult woman extolling the beauty benefits of male excretions on ‘HWC’. No longer couched in metaphors, Phair’s lyrics were just as unabashedly forward and telling as they always were, except this time they were set to infectiously catchy hooks. In the album’s opener, ‘Extraordinary’, Phair shares her take on an empowerment anthem, declaring herself to be “your average everyday sane-psycho supergoddess”, over a pop-metal arrangement.
The entire album fits in with the kind of polished pop-punk anthems that dominated the early 00s: a combination of loud drums layered with pristine guitar riffs and a chorus-verse-chorus formula that worms into your brain and never leaves. Even those who didn’t follow Phair’s trajectory know her smash single ‘Why Can’t I’, even if they don’t stop to think that it was about an affair and not an innocent crush.
With its slick production and bubble-gum tendencies, some accused Phair of infantilising herself to please the masses in a post-Britney Spears world. But Phair has always towed the line between indie-rock darling and insouciant tease. She’s made a career through the non-threatening presentation of provocative themes. Back in her Girly-Sound days, she would even record her demos on four-track recorders and speed them up to sound even more girly, delivering shock and substance through a voice that is rarely taken seriously in society.
With Phair, self-awareness is never in short supply. On the bopping ‘Rock Me’, she sings about seducing a younger man whose “record collection don’t exist” and doesn’t “even know who Liz Phair is”. Among the more traditional pop fare there are still hints of the old Phair, including the bare-bones instrumentation, revelatory lyrics and off-kilter melody of ‘Little Digger’. Other highlights, ‘Friend Of Mine’ and ‘Red Light Fever’, also speak to Phair’s personal circumstances and the fear of starting casual relationships when the consequences can be anything but.
It may not seem like it upon first listen, but Liz Phair is essentially an alt.pop album made by an artist who knows how the sausage is made and still chooses to engage with it. The album still contained the same blush-inducing exclamations of Guyville, but also worked within the confines of the Top 40 genre to tell her own story. When you look back at her catalogue as a whole, it’s clear that Liz Phair didn’t try to remake her own image but rather tweak pop music to fit into her own.
The 180g black vinyl editions of Whip-Smart, whitechocolatespaceegg and Liz Phair are out now. Order them here.