28 years ago, Liz Phair came through with one of the greatest debut albums of all time; ‘Exile In Guyville’. The album inspired some of the biggest indie-rock stars in music currently – Soccer Mommy and Snail Mail among them. The album sky-rocketed expectations for her follow-ups; which inevitably disappointed many fans. For her many follow up attempts, Phair has taken three decades of relentless criticism; ‘Whip-Smart’ was criticised for being overly-polished, the self-titled mainstream pop album saw her condemned as a sell-out by a large number of her fans and 2010’s ‘Funstyle’ was widely seen as a trainwreck.
In many ways, however, the criticisms of Liz Phair’s post-Guyville music has aged far worse than any of the music itself; 1998’s ‘Whitechocolatespaceegg’ has become a fan favourite, and the album’s lead single ‘Polyester Bride’ stands as one Phair’s most loved and recognisable tracks. In our increasingly pop-timistic time, the self-titled album – which included her only top 40 single ‘Why Can’t I?’ – has been critically re-evaluated; the original criticism of has been largely dismissed as sexist, ageist and needlessly contrarian, while the Pitchfork reviewer who infamously gave the album a score of 0.0 has since apologised.
The album’s departing track ‘Bad Kitty’ serves as a thoroughly deserved humble-brag and as a giant middle finger to dismissive critics, as Phair sings “I don’t live in a world that appreciates me / You could say that I’m ahead of my time”. The track basks in the knowledge that Phair’s riskiest and most controversial decisions have ultimately aged very well; it includes a poppy, catchy-as-a-rash hook, exudes unbridled confidence and includes stark sexual imagery – even if the lyricism feels more Weezer-like in it’s goofiness, as opposed to the frank sexual confessions of ‘Fuck and Run’, ‘Flower’ and ‘HWC’ (“My pussy is a big dumb cat / It lies around lazy and fat”).
‘Soberish’ sees Liz Phair re-united with producer Brad Wood; who produced the epic ‘Guyville’, as well as it’s follow up ‘Whip-Smart’ and part of 1998’s ‘Whitechocolatespaceegg’. Of those three albums, ‘Soberish’ most closely resembles ‘Egg’, but it really feels like an incorporation of all of Liz’s albums up to this date – including, inevitably to the dismay of some, ‘Funstyle’. Save for the chaotic chorus of ‘Spanish Doors’, the production on ‘Soberish’ oft resembles the slick ‘Whip-Smart’. Meanwhile, Phair’s preternatural ability to write anthemic, catchy choruses shines across multiple tracks (most notably ‘Hey Lou’) and recalls the pop-y tendancies of the self-titled and the under-appreciated ‘Somebody’s Miracle’ (except this time even better and more consistent).
Meanwhile, specific songs on the album recall certain, individual tracks from Phair’s back catalogue. The title track is a mostly acoustic cut reminisicent of ‘Somebody’s Miracle’ highlight ‘Table For One’. Many fans, meanwhile, have noticed striking sonic similarities between ‘Lonely Street’ and Guyville’s ‘Shatter’.
At this point, it’s well-established that Phair’s 2003 (and 2005) album didn’t deserve even half the backlash it got, but that said, they were still a notable step down from her previous efforts. It was never the mainstream pop sound that hurt those albums, but Phair’s decision to sing songs that didn’t cater to her vocal range and, the lyricism; which, unlike her previous work, relied on cliched lyricism like “Why can’t I breathe whenever I think about you?”.
‘Soberish’ demonstrates how Phair has gotten better at writing songs more suited to her voice and, the lyricism is some of the best she’s put out since ‘Guyville’. ‘Lonely Street’ is an affecting highlight, sang in a conversational tone (Phair’s speciality) and sees Phair reach a beautiful falsetto-adjacent sound reminiscent of Lana Del Rey on ‘White Dress’. Pre-release single ‘Hey Lou’, meanwhile sees Phair flip gender roles, and societal perceptions, with a precision not seen since her debut. Her no-holds-barred imagining of Laurie Anderson interacting with Lou Reed as he gets further under the influence, is genuinely captivating; even if not making for the most flattering depiction of the late Reed (“What’s inside that heavy head? / Are you on the junk again? / Your eyes look dead”).
Phair – who wrote the spectacular ‘Divorce Song’; about a couple slowly growing apart, at age 23 – has always been wise beyond her years, but the endlessly-quotable ‘Good Side’ exudes the kind of wisdom that one can only enjoy after decades of lived experience: “There’s so many ways to fuck up a life / I tried to be original”, Phair confesses, “Done plenty more wrong than I ever did right / Still I’m not a criminal”. The track – released back in pre pandemic 2019 – is sweet, but never saccharine; undoubtedly the best reflection of a break-up she’s made since ‘Guyville’ (“I don’t want you to feel bad / You’ll find in due time / You’re going to miss what we had”)
‘Dosage’, meanwhile, is a true delight for long-time fans, who will embrace the reference to ‘Polyester Bride’s’ “Henry”; she recounts the advice of the bartender, decades after their encounter: “Dosage is everything / It hurts you or it helps / Go take your medicine and call me when you’re well”. The track also borrows from a similar sonic pallet to ‘Polyester Bride’ and is arguably just as good as said track (which is no small feat). ‘Ba Ba Ba’ meanwhile features a half-spoken word, half-rap verse reminiscent of ‘Funstyle’, but incredibly it kinda works!
‘Soberish’ isn’t a perfect album – the single version of ‘Spanish Doors’ is better than what ends up on the album, ‘Soul Sucker’ feels somewhat unfinished and the sexually-explicit imagery of ‘Bad Kitty’ isn’t quite a match for similar themed classics in Phair’s catalogue. But ‘Soberish’ is undeniably Phair’s best album this century; a welcome return to form after a well-deserved break. Phair has said she plans to release only one more album after this one, but ‘Soberish’ sounds like the work of an artist still bursting with promising ideas.
Best Tracks: The Game, Hey Lou, Good Side, Sheridan Road, Lonely Street, Dosage, Bad Kitty
Worst Tracks: Soul Sucker