The timing has never been better for a good Liz Phair record. The full-disclosure lyrics and painterly songcraft she perfected on her classic 1993 debut, Exile In Guyville, can be heard these days in any number of excellent young artists across the indie-pop map — Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, Jay Som, Adult Mom, Lucy Dacus, Stella Donnelly, just to name a few — making Phair easily one of the most resonant songwriters of the last 30 years. That’s truer than ever, even though her musical output since the Nineties has been intermittent, kind of noncommittal, and, in the case of her uniquely maligned 2003 pop crossover bid, Liz Phair, even a little embarrassing.
Soberish, her first album in 11 years, brings to mind the glory of Guyville and its 1994 follow-up, Whip-Smart, without feeling at all like self-conscious recapitulation. She opens up with “Spanish Doors,” recalling her landmark relationship autopsy “Divorce Song,” this time with a cleverly turned Fleetwood Mac-steeped slickness that ends up suggesting what it might sound like if Phair’s friend Sheryl Crow ever made a Blood on the Tracks. “Bad Kitty” summons the frank sex talk of songs like “Fuck and Run” and “Flower,” albeit somewhat halfheartedly, opening with the lines, “My pussy is a big dumb cat/It lies around lazy and fat/But when it gets a taste for a man/It goes out huntin’ for ’em any way it can.” A more successful echo of the past comes during “Hey Lou,” a strange, striking example of Phair’s ability to demystify male rock-star cliché: She adopts the voice of Laurie Anderson impatiently talking her husband, Lou Reed, out of one of his assholic distempers, not unlike the way Phair conceived of Guyville as a feminist subversion of the Rolling Stones’ macho swagger.
Brad Wood, the copacetic producer who helmed Guyville and Whip-Smart, is back for the first time since the Nineties, and the album’s sound often recalls the tart melodies, droll, searching prettiness, and rich genre impressionism of those albums. The best moments are the most subtle, from the vulnerable acoustic fragility of “In There” to the spare, acoustic evocation of her native Chicago on “Sheridan Road,” to the laidback alt-pop of “Dosage,” a paternally wise catalog of life advice from the perspective of a recovering bad-decision junkie who’s still finding her own middle path.
Even in her fifties, Phair remains an adept of good-kid-gone-bad bravado. (“There are so many ways to fuck up a life/I try to be original,” the sings with flat disregard on “Good Side,” a standout flourish of knowing sassiness.) Yet the moments here that feel most genuinely lived-in are the ones where she opens up and demonstrates her unique genius at articulating the real life hope, fear, disappointment, and ambivalence of an inveterate romantic who wanders through life always on guard against getting burned by her own desires. “I don’t have the guts to tell you that I feel great, I feel safe,” she sings on “Ba Ba Ba,” an opaque yet lavishly beautiful song of Brian Wilson-esque proportion in which she looks back on the initial elation of a hotel hookup then fast-forwards to the moment where things inevitably unraveled. Let’s hope she doesn’t wait another 11 years to fill us in whatever epiphany and heartbreak is coming for her next.