(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #39 – released June 22, 1993)
Track listing: 6’1″ / Help Me Mary / Glory / Dance of the Seven Veils / Never Said / Soap Star Joe / Explain It To Me / Canary / Mesmerizing / Fuck and Run / Girls! Girls! Girls! / Divorce Song / Shatter / Flower / Johnny Sunshine / Gunshy / Stratford-On-Guy / Strange Loop
Like Brian Eno, Gordon Gano (of the Violent Femmes) or maybe even Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, Liz Phair’s voice is all wrong. At times, she can just barely hold a tune, and she avoids vibrato as if it was a skunk crossing her path. Rob Sheffield once wrote she sounds like “Peppermint Patty on a bad caffeine jag”, still the best assessment of her tone I’ve ever read. But like the other artists mentioned above, Phair succeeded despite her vocal limitations, getting by on her wits, her moxie and most of all, her singular perspective.
When this 26-year-old Chicagoan made Exile In Guyville, the world recognized it as low-fi, guitar-based indie rock, but it didn’t sound exactly like anything else at the time; arguably, two-plus decades on, no one has ever fully replicated its particular, driving, disarming allure (not even Phair herself). As debut albums go, it’s one of the all-time best, up there with Songs of Leonard Cohen, Little Earthquakes, The Modern Lovers, etc. (plus a handful of records I’ll cover later in this project); however, it’s also one of the most misunderstood albums in some circles, both then and now. Phair and Exile were loathed as much as they were loved, for many reasons—some fully plausible, others regrettably inevitable.
What first caught most people’s attention about Exile was its explicit sexual content. After all, the record’s catchiest song is called “Fuck and Run”, where, over crisply strummed chords, Phair reminisces about a decade-plus of casual hook-ups, plainly lamenting, “Whatever happened to a boyfriend, the kind of guy who makes love ‘cause he’s in it?” The repeated line, “I didn’t think this would happen again,” provides the song’s hook and if the word “fuck” weren’t in the title and lyrics, it might’ve been a radio hit. Elsewhere, it was hard to ignore such tracks as “Glory” (a folkish ode to oral sex) or the infamous “Flower”, where Phair recites both a singsong melody and countermelody of smut talk (“I want to be your blow job queen” being a typical example). I’m guessing Phair wasn’t the first woman to ever sing such graphic lyrics, but she was undoubtedly the first that most people ever heard doing so, and she achieved instant notoriety for it.
But here’s the thing about Exile’s sexual content—the real, raw, explicit stuff only comprises a teeny tiny fraction of the album. Most Exile tracks are clean enough to get unedited radio airplay, and the hoopla over Phair’s occasionally dirty mouth overshadowed other capabilities—namely that she was a gifted singer/songwriter. MTV even aired videos (albeit almost exclusively on 120 Minutes) for two of Exile’s singles: “Never Said”, where in the chorus, Phair repeats a simple phrase (“I never said nothing”) over a remedial riff but does so with enough gusto and variation (often stretching the word “I” out to six or eight syllables) that she justifies sustaining it past three minutes, and “Stratford-On-Guy”, a tune about “flying into Chicago at night” which weds her most poetic lyrics (“As we moved out of the farmlands into the grid / The plan of a city was all that you saw”) to her most effective, sparkling, propulsive chorus.
In actuality, Phair pissed a lot of people off for reasons other than content. Some questioned her genuineness as an artist due to her roots (she grew up in Winnetka, a tony Chicago suburb), her good looks (she’s topless on Exile’s cover, which was taken in a photo booth) and her connections within Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood scene, unofficially dubbed “Guyville” by its insiders (which most notably also included the band Urge Overkill). Add to that Phair’s rudimentary vocals and shakiness as a live performer, and you can see why some dismissed her as overrated once Exile received increased media attention. Blame jealousy, classism or, as Gina Arnold eloquently does in her 33 1/3 series book on the album, sexism; also consider the mere notion that Phair would have the balls to suggest the whole LP was a song-by-song answer to the Rolling Stones’ revered 1972 opus Exile On Main Street. You could practically see hundreds of (mostly male) rock critics rolling their eyes at such a claim (some have suggested Phair simply made that shit up and I’m not interested enough in the Stones’ album to try to link it up with Exile On Guyville, although in her book Arnold makes a decent effort.)
The point missed by all these naysayers was that Phair, while an unconventional, shit-stirring talent, was nonetheless a real talent: that Exile in Guyville holds together so well and mostly sounds timeless is vindication of such. On opening rave-up “6’1””, she instantly wins you over with her underdog persona, her declaration of empowerment not necessarily dynamic, but certainly relatable and affecting. From there, she maintains that camaraderie through tales of roommate troubles (“Help Me Mary”), succinct denouncements of hero worship (“Soap Star Joe”), earned assertions of self-worth (the softly churning “Mesmerizing”, which musically could be bedsit bubblegum) and affably candid self-awareness (“Girls! Girls! Girls!”, where she comments on her confession that she gets away with “what the girls call murder” via her own sarcastic backing vocal). She’s so effortlessly good at appearing conversational that every phrase of the exquisite “Divorce Song” not only registers but resonates long enough to have a life of its own—what other 26-year-old you know could come up with something as damning and wise as, “And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead / but if you’re tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am”?
At eighteen tracks, Exile In Guyville is technically a double album (at least on vinyl), but at 55 minutes, it easily fits on one CD so superficially it doesn’t have the scope or breadth (not to mention length) of, for instance, English Settlement. Still, the album’s not all precise pop like “Fuck and Run” or “Never Said”. Its intimate swagger often cannily gives off the impression of being recorded in Phair’s bedroom (although it wasn’t); further underlining this aesthetic are tracks where she deviates from the indie pop ideal and aims for something darker, moodier, stranger—sides of Phair’s persona not as outwardly apparent or sensational as the aspiring Blow Job Queen. There are multiple stripped-down, guitar-and-voice numbers (“Glory”, “Dance of the Seven Veils”, “Gunshy”), a reverb-drenched piano-and-voice mood piece (“Canary”), a song made to seem comparatively lush by a backing, omniscient electronic hum (“Explain It To Me”) and another song (“Johnny Sunshine”) broken into two disparate parts, shifting from bluesy grit to dreamy psychedelia.
“Shatter” opens with a guitar strumming at waltz-tempo, the same four bars repeated until they take on a certain majesty. Feedback and other muted layers of noise come in one by one; then, Phair’s vocal finally appears at 2:30, her words cutting right to the bone (“And somethin’ about just being with you / slapped me right in the face, nearly broke me in two”). It’s the longest song on Exile, lasting over five minutes, with Phair pensively concluding, “Honey, I’m thinking maybe, you know just maybe, maybe,” off into a growing feedback ether. It’s all as frank as “Flower” (which happens to be the next track), but with a vulnerability that’s somewhat unexpected and almost revelatory.
Exile won that year’s Village Voice “Pazz and Jop” critics poll, and Phair was wise enough not to even try to replicate its sound (if not further its success). Her subsequent albums were much more polished and professional sounding, to the point where she worked with mainstream producers The Matrix on her fourth album, 2003’s Liz Phair and got an actual top 40 hit out of it (“Why Can’t I”); while I like some of Whip-Smart (1994) and a lot of Whitechocolatespaceegg (1998), neither are as special as Exile. Perhaps Exile’s essence was simply impossible for Phair to replicate once it brought her her success. Now middle-aged, she has stayed out of the limelight for most of the past decade. I’d like to think Phair has another Exile lurking within her, but even if she doesn’t, she remains that rare artist whose legacy will always be firmly secured by one heck of a debut album.
Up next: We’ll be who we want to be.