In 1993 a twenty-six-year-old Liz Phair burned her image onto the post-feminist landscape with Exile in Guyville, an album that perfectly captured the experiences of young women stranded between puberty and adulthood. Phair herself embodied the contradictions of contemporary chickdom: She cursed sexism while reveling in her own sexuality, acted tough but suffered from debilitating stage fright.
The five years since have been frenetic for Phair in ways that have nothing — and everything — to do with her music. After releasing 1994’s smoother Whip Smart, Phair caught the first bus out of Guyville, got married and gave birth to a son. Now she’s back with her long-awaited third album, but Exile-era Phair fans beware: Mama’s got a brand-new bag. Ever the confessional songwriter, Phair continues to write her life, and right now her life centers around one guy and the baby boy whose bald head quite possibly inspired her new album’s title.
While most indie rockers are beefing up their sound with gratuitous electronic gadgetry, Whitechocolatespaceegg opts for a more tactile sound. Instruments twang out of tune, strings and frets squeak with each chord change, and Phair’s tenuous, conversational singing voice takes the occasional half-octave nose dive. The softer songs, most of them produced by Scott Litt, are engagingly intimate, as though Phair had curled up on your couch, guitar in hand, to share a little tale or two. The harder, more upbeat numbers are playful and pop-y, with just enough dry humor to keep them from floating away.
As always with Phair, it’s the lyrics that tell the real story. Where Guyville graphed the disintegration of love in tracks such as “Divorce Song,” Whitechocolatespaceegg explores the dynamics of marital endurance. The presumably autobiographical “Go on Ahead” ponders the strain put on a marriage by childbirth (“One night is lovely, the next is brutal/And you and I are in way over our heads with this one”). In granting her mate the freedom to “go on ahead,” Phair reaffirms her matrimonial bond with the simplest of troths: “I believe we have things to do/I believe in myself, and I believe in you.”
This doesn’t mean that Phair is free of internal conflicts, however. On the quiet, lilting “Perfect World,” she confesses to still wanting an impossible array of superwomanish attributes: “I want to be cool, tall, vulnerable and luscious.” Nor has she lost her taste for sexual danger — “Johnny Feelgood” and “Love Is Nothing” show that she doesn’t mind getting roughed up a little, if necessary. Most telling are the tracks in which she sorts out the present by sifting through her past: “Shitloads of Money” updates a cut from her early Girly Sound tapes with the added perspective of a pop star; the breezy, rocking “Headache” turns Guyville’s “Fuck and Run” inside out as the song’s protagonist tells a potential paramour, “You can take me home/But I will never be your girl.” On “Polyester Bride,” Phair the wife revisits her tumultuous teenage self, asking her (via another character), “Do you want to be a polyester bride?/Or do you want to hang your head and die?…/Do you want to flap your wings and fly away from here?”
Phair’s younger fans may not be able to relate to the world according to mom. But years from now, they may well hoard copies of Whitechocolatespaceegg and marvel at its prescient insights into their post-hipster lives. By then, of course, Phair will have reared her space egg and traded in her empty nest for an RV and the open highway, her stereo cranked up as she belts out a host of pre-menopausal anthems. And those of us still flailing in the deserts of Guyville will wave our hats as she passes, cheering, “You go, old girl.”