Review Summary: There's no escaping the past, but maybe there's a new beginning.
It’s nearly impossible to discuss Liz Phair’s comeback without opening the can of worms that is her entire career. Few artists have received such acclaim and disdain in equal measure, both extremes shaped and radically reshaped by history. And it all comes down to one simple fact: Phair is never going to escape the shadow of Exile in Guyville
. Every subsequent album she’d release would be examined within the context and parameters of her first record because, simply put, no one could have predicted how celebrated and influential the album would be. Even Phair herself was shocked, as she revealed in Wild and Unwise - The Liz Phair Story
"I don't really get what happened with Guyville. It was so normal, from my side of things. It was nothing remarkable, other than the fact that I'd completed a big project, but I'd done that before”.
Unfortunately, the shadow cast by Exile in Guyville
led to her constantly being criticized throughout her career for “never living up” to the record. It didn’t seem readily apparent at first - Whip-Smart
were just seen as lesser versions of the debut - but as many of us know, the self-titled album was the one to burst open the floodgates of scorn from critics and hardcore fans alike. And while I think that record is fine, Phair never quite seemed to regain her footing after it was released. Somebody’s Miracle
was an incredibly boring and overly safe MOR affair, and Funstyle
was horrendously misguided in its cringey comedy bits and tired commentary about music industry crap. And sadly, that’s where she stopped. She fell out with her record label and sat out the rest of the decade; however, while she was focusing on other ventures, one little album was gaining more acclaim than ever. Which one was that? Well… what else could it be but Exile in Guyville
, of course? It reached #56 on Rolling Stone’s newest 500 Greatest Albums of All Time
list, and while I don’t consider Rolling Stone the be-all-end-all of music journalism, holding the album in such high regard just goes to show that its legacy hasn’t diminished over time.
So it really doesn’t surprise me that, in 2021, Liz Phair would finally want to release something new to keep this newfound momentum going. Soberish
is Phair’s first album in 11 years, and it mostly returns to the brand of indie-oriented alternative rock she began her career with. Of course there’s still more polish and gloss than her earliest records, but that’s completely forgivable when she’s taken so many stylistic twists and turns as it is. “Spanish Doors” begins the experience, and it offers a nice glimpse into what you’ll hear on Soberish
as a whole: clean guitars, stripped-down production values, and a few oddball tonal shifts to keep things interesting. I get the sense that Phair is peddling this record as a clean slate; it’s not that she’s forgetting the crazy ride her career has been, but rather she’s using the album as her moment of clarity in music form. It’s in the title: Soberish
. And true to this idea, some songs reconcile the grounded music of her early years with the experimentation of her later work. The juxtaposition works much more than you might think; the humble and spare nature of Exile in Guyville
benefits from some eccentricities, and the utterly bizarre songwriting choices found in Funstyle
are tempered and brought back down to earth.
As for the other songs, you’ll find a nice mix of electric and acoustic guitars in a typical alternative rock setting. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but the back-to-basics nature of many of these tunes proves quite satisfying. “Sheridan Road” is a wonderful stripped-down ballad of reminiscence with a breezy atmosphere, while “Soul Sucker” adds a piano into the mix to bring out some vaguely bluesy vibes. Perhaps the most striking thing about the tracklist as a whole is how acoustic it is; even more energetic and fast-paced tunes like “Bad Kitty” (yeah, that’s a title alright) and the title track don’t really crank up the volume much. But as I said, there are some of those eccentric moments leftover from albums like Funstyle
. One of the most intriguing ones comes from the falsetto “woo-hoo!” vocals in the mid-tempo ballad “Dosage”, which don’t seem like they should work with the song’s atmosphere, but they strangely do. Another example comes in the form of the punchy drums in “Ba Ba Ba”, which contrast with the airy and lighthearted feel of the song itself. Still, I wish there were more such moments. The biggest issue with Soberish
is that a lot of the middle-of-the-road elements of Somebody’s Miracle
are kept in as well, and while the laid-back nature of the album is pleasant enough, I wish there were a few more punchy and energetic tracks to balance them out and provide a little more variety.
However, did any of us really know what to expect after 11 years? Soberish
is an enjoyable, agreeable record. That might not be what some people wanted - it might not even be what I wanted after that long - but if this ends up being her last record, then it’s a much better conclusion than Funstyle
at the very least. Liz Phair’s had such a turbulent and strange career at this point that I’d be completely satisfied with this being her final album; and if she keeps recording, then it’s at least a solid launching pad to build a new phase of her career upon. Soberish
may be in the shadow of Exile in Guyville
like Phair’s other records, but it also benefits from something those albums don’t - the lens of hindsight.