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Review: Liz Phair’s ‘Girly-Sound to Guyville’ Tells Full Story of an Indie Classic

An expanded 25th anniversary reissue of Liz Phair classic double-album debut tells the full story of her artistic emergence

Liz Phair in Beverly Hills, Calif., April 7, 2018. Matador re-releases her 1993 album "Exile in Guyville" this month, along with songs from three cassettes she put out under the name "Girly-Sound" in 1991.

Liz Phair in 2018.

Ryan Pfluger/The New York Times/Redux

Before I ever heard Liz Phair, I heard about Liz Phair. The Midwestern indie-rock gossip train had made the trip from Chicago, her hometown, to the Minneapolis record store where I worked in high school weeks before an advance copy of her 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, did. Listening to the men I worked alongside pick apart this woman none of them knew – whom they called an amateur and a slut because she’d written a song called “Fuck and Run” and reportedly appeared topless on her album cover – taught me a crucial early lesson: The boys who run this scene will hate your ambition either way, so you might as well just do whatever you want.

It’s hard to overstate what Guyville meant at the time. Today, echoes of its direct, finessed feminist interiority can be heard in similar work by young artists like Mitski, Soccer Mommy, St. Vincent, Snail Mail and others. In 1993, she was at the vanguard. A double album debut was audacious; her clear-eyed and candid presentation of sexuality and gendered experience of the music scene even more so. Musically, its versatility showed Phair as an auteur with the vision and chops to back up her ambitions. The album was finessed and dynamic from start to finish, from the single “Never Said,” a wry anti-kiss-‘n’-tell anthem with a soaring, multi-tracked harmonic “I,” to the more subtle but no less complex “Stratford-on-Guy,” where Phair sings about flying over Chicago, imagining a cinematic upgrade of her life – pretending she’s in a Galaxie 500 video. The subject matter was certainly striking, but the bigger deal was a double album of flawless songcraft.

Lyrically, Phair presented a woman in love with who she was and was becoming, making her secret dialogues – and her internal ones – visible in a space where most often only white, cis-het men’s voices counted and endured. The results completely reoriented the independent-music scene. She became the first female artist in 19 years to claim the Number One spot on the Village Voice critics poll; alongside Green Day and Nirvana, she was one of the principal acts to clear a path from the underground to the mainstream in the first half of the Nineties. Now, she’s back, touring behind a new deluxe edition of Guyville, and being feted with nearly as much media attention as she commanded on its original release.

In 1993, even after riot-grrrl bands like Bikini Kill had shaken up the punk scene, Guyville felt like a bomb drop. Preceded by a season of zine mentions for her elusive, stripped-down Girly-Sound bootleg demo cassettes (all included in this reissue), Phair’s double LP, a supposed answer-back to the Rolling Stones’ 1972 monolith, Exile on Main Street, arrived fully fleshed, a winking bit of rock & roll subterfuge clad in sui generis melodic invention. If this was her answer to Exile, then, as Robert Christgau once suggested in reviewing Prince, Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.

From the opening rush of “6’1″,” the album came on like regular indie rock. But over the course of Guyville, Phair indexed the psychic price of being a get-along girl in a male-dominated rock scene. Her songs were full of inside observations that made clear she was keenly aware of how she was seen, that her ingress into this hallowed guy space transacted on her charming silence, her smile, her good looks, her mere obedience. “I sing like a good canary,” she offers. In interviews Phair would explain that Guyville is anywhere people are pushed to the margins: “Guyville is everywhere.” The call was coming from inside the house.

Phair’s relationship with indie rock was much like the relationship with men she depicted in her songs: They knew, but she knew better. Guyville‘s point of view connected it back to landmarks like Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me,” Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and the 22 climaxes Donna Summer conceives on “Love to Love You Baby,” and it’s now part of a continuum that includes Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Lorde’s “Green Light,” SZA’s “Normal Girl.”

Producer Brad Wood worked to create a sound that was distinctive and wholly her own, identifiable from the first chord. Phair’s plain alto ranged from crystalline to a little hungover-sounding, her delivery conversational, often sounding like she was smiling when she sang. Her strummy-guitar-driven sonic lineage went back to the Feelies, with the occasional experiment like “Canary,” where a discreet personal history of obeisance unravels over a treated piano, overwhelmed in sustain, an inkling of the psychedelic space she’d pursue on Guyville‘s 1994 follow-up, Whip Smart. It was unfancy and sonically familiar, and yet because of its gendered grievances, musical polish and the powerful persona at its center, unlike anything we’d ever seen.

The woman Phair presents on Guyville is one with nothing to lose. She’s exhausted by the sexism that surrounds and mutes her (“I practice all my moves/I memorize their stupid rules,” she sings on “Help Me Mary”), though “sexism” is too concrete and facile a word for what she’s describing. She examines her assigned place in the social hierarchies of the post-collegiate rock world, rife with intimate indignities and public negation. Her only reasonable mode of recourse was to blow up her spot, nuke the thing in glorious fashion rather than play along with underestimations of her capacity, talent, intellect and desire. (Though it’s worth noting that for a pretty, well-educated white woman, her risk was relative.)

While songs like “Never Said,” “Mesmerizing” and “Help Me Mary” laid bare what these boys’ cool rules and confidence masked, they are incidental characters; Phair was her own muse, Guyville‘s self-possessed center (“I loved my life and hated you,” she sings on “6’1″”). Phair’s “I” is far more central than any “he” or “we” (she strikes first-person approximately 150 times over the course of 18 songs). She isn’t dazzled by their conception or construction of power – she’s driving headlong into her own. And just as Mitchell’s Blue or Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky had done for a generation of songwriters in the Seventies, Guyville further permitted songs to feel at once direct and interior. It demanded its listeners interrogate their assumptions about what young women truly desire, begged us to wonder what girls really think about.

Like Mitchell, Phair was miscategorized as “confessional” – as if the work tumbled out unfiltered from a sentimental diary page; yet Guyville is nothing if not a calculating work created with acute knowledge of the audience it was destined for. The woman (or women) Phair illustrates so intimately made the songs relatable and accessible. Maybe you’d never been a Midwestern good bad-girl, or some man’s blond mirage, but anyone knows what it means to long for others, to dream of self-actualization. Liz Phair treated girl life as intrinsically interesting and complex source material. It was.

The candor and sexuality of the record (heard most strikingly “Fuck and Run” and “Flower”) were seized upon and sensationalized by the press, though as Phair admits in recent interviews, “How could they not?” In the early Nineties, indie rock’s relationship to eroticism, to pleasure, to bodies wasn’t just ironically distant, it was estranged and utterly fuckless. Phair’s Matador labelmates Pavement were doling out lines like “My eyes stick to all the shiny robes/You wear on the protein delta strip”; Jon Spencer’s Elvis-ian swagger was what passed as panty-moistening sexual charisma. (Extra Width, Spencer’s 1993 LP with the Blues Explosion, follows Guyville in the Matador catalog.) And then, suddenly, here’s Phair, landing hard emphasis on the “t” in “cunt” in “Johnny Sunshine,” only to chime sweetly, “You can rent me by the hour.” Sure, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon had played with some desire narratives, but there’s a galactic expanse between her “Kissibility” and Phair leveling “everything you ever wanted/Everything you ever thought of is/Everything I’ll do to you/I’ll fuck you and your minions too” like it’s a threat. This was the real Songs About Fucking.

That realism was doubly new because Phair didn’t conform to previous images of rock sexuality. The thing about archetypical “bad girls” in punk and indie rock, until Phair, was that you could usually see them coming. They were fantastically tough, reckless and a little scary, witchy with foghorn voices – Lydia Lunch, Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna being the prime examples of the era. Phair looked scrubbed and collegiate, flashing a proper smile as she gazed up from her guitar in a posed Polaroid in Guyville‘s inside sleeve art; on the cover, she was baring teeth and a tit. The images posited something gloriously confounding, as if to say, “I am both, I am everything, maybe I’m any girl you know.”

There’s no question that the sustained power and musical potency of Guyville merit another deluxe, anniversary-pegged reissue, but this is the first to unearth all three of Phair’s pre-Guyville Girly-Sound tapes, which she recorded in 1991. The earliest are bedroom demos in the truest sense, her voice quiet so as not to disturb her roommates; it’s occasionally overpowered by her guitar. Recognizable stylistic themes soon affix themselves – overconfident, aging men as a stand-in for America, class, her adoption, men who want things she doesn’t want to give. It’s no surprise, given how developed Guyville is for a debut, that Phair’s playful arrangements and lyrical incision were there from the jump. Her voice expands from singsong to confident as she figures out just what it can do. Some of the demo songs routinely run to the five-minute mark; Phair sounds like she has a lot to say and is eager for her creation to hit the tape. When she jumped to the polished, produced work of Guyville and buried the lo-fi amateurism, it was hardly a stretch; she’d simply grown into her ambition.

Due to Phair’s songwriting and enduring cultural salience (and Wood’s production), the album has aged better than the work of her peers. Phair was initially derided for being too pop, but that’s what gives Guyville both timelessness and grace. There was a generation of bands born at the same time as Guyville who took Slint’s 1991 epic “Good Morning, Captain” as their grail; they were mostly Midwestern boys who made long, primarily instrumental songs and veiled their emotions in nautical metaphors. Precision and heroic virtuosity were exalted above all else, but it was important not to seem like you were trying too hard. When Guyville came home to roost, it became clear that while these dudes had been down at the Rainbo arguing about La Monte Young records in the bar light, Phair had been holed up, putting in work on a record that would outlast their collective careers.

Which is to say Guyville’s most withering indictment of the indie-rock scene isn’t Phair’s sizing up of these men’s faulty self-conception or their fuck-and-run promiscuity, but what she calls out on “Help Me Mary” when she offers an interventionist prayer: “Weave my disgust into fame/And watch how fast they run to the flame.”

Decades down the road from Exile in Guyville’s initial rapturous critical reception, the list of men who claim (or have been assigned) linchpin status in Phair’s artistic development has only grown; the sundry oral histories of the album are packed with men, elbowing forward to claim “it was I” – who loaned her that guitar, or booked her on that bill, or noticed a potential she, naturally, wasn’t even sure of herself. This box set deadens those dubious claims, underscoring what we already knew: It was all her, all along. Its gift is letting us hear a great artist become forged, and become herself, song by song.

In This Article: Liz Phair

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