This is the album I didn’t want to hear. While indie purists can sometimes be harsh judges for all the wrong reasons, the “sellout” buzz generated by Liz Phair’s new self-titled release had me worried, even though I seemed to like her last offering, 1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg, a little more than everyone else did. Phair set a standard with her outstanding debut, 1993’s Exile in Guyville, which made her an indie queen and has haunted the responses to her subsequent releases. Maybe we all need to stop expecting Phair to produce a record as relatable and groundbreaking as Guyville. Even sans expectations, Liz Phair still ultimately disappoints. But its most glaring fault is not that it breaks with Phair’s past (which it does), but that it sounds all too generic.
The slick sound and huge, relentless chorus of album opener “Extraordinary,” one of four tracks co-written and produced by Avril Lavigne collaborators the Matrix, foreshadows what’s to come. The three other Matrix tracks are simultaneously the most infectious and the most lyrically awkward. Most of the album’s softer, more contemplative songs (“Red Light Fever,” “It’s Sweet,” “Little Digger”) are those produced by Michael Penn. Relationships remain the thematic focus throughout the album, and it’s too bad that the few insightful moments come between so many outworn sentiments. But the main offenders here are “Favorite,” in which Phair compares a lover to her favorite pair of underwear, and “H.W.C.,” in which she declares “hot white come” her “secret beauty routine.” Both songs are clumsy, rely on weak shock value, and worst of all, refuse to get unstuck from your brain.
One of the best things about Phair’s previous albums is their diversity; her willingness to experiment with different styles over the space of a single album was certainly admirable. The sameness of the tracks on Liz Phair is infuriating. Phair has always been able to write catchy songs (“Never Said,” “Supernova,” “What Makes You Happy”) that were smart at the same time. But her new material, while memorable in a stuck-in-your-head sort of way, lacks originality. Gone too is Phair’s populist, rough-around-the-edges vocal delivery; here she sings much higher, and her over-polished voice takes on an eerie, angelic/robotic quality. If Phair wants to be on the radio, the misplaced four-letter words in these songs are most definitely not the best way for her to distinguish herself from the anti-Britney hitmakers. And the few sexually explicit moments here seem like bones thrown to old fans who are used to her candor, though they hold none of the weight found in the details of older songs like “Fuck and Run” or “Chopsticks.”
While an artist’s earlier work is an entirely legitimate context in which to think about their newer work, things here don’t fare much better even when you step beyond the shadow of Exile in Guyville. Liz Phair does not sound overproduced for Liz Phair per se; it just sounds overproduced. The songs here are bland in the sense that they are catchy in an entirely predictable way — read the lyrics and you’ll know how the songs go even before you hear them. The lyrics to songs like “Favorite” (“Oh baby, know how you feel?/ You feel like my favorite underwear/ And I’m slipping you on again tonight”) and “My Bionic Eyes” (“I’ve got timing and attitude/ That can get to the baddest dude”) would sound ridiculous coming out of anyone’s mouth. Phair may not owe her fans an album that they’re guaranteed to like, but it’s too bad this album does not even have much to offer to new listeners.