Jun 04, 2021
By Austin Saalman
After more than a decade, Liz Phair has finally reemerged to deliver her seventh album.
Wrapped in the airily varnished production of Phair and Brad Wood—co-producer on several of Phair’s major releases, including her seminal 1993 debut Exile in Guyville—the sweetly melodic Soberish stands in stark contrast to the grim mood enveloping a nation still in crisis mode. While the inattentive ear may perceive Phair’s new release to be one more in an expansive line of indistinguishable pop rock offerings, a second listen should reveal it as the musically educated, lyrically sincere near-masterpiece it most certainly is.
As with 2003’s controversial Liz Phair, which saw critics divided over her drastic shift toward a more mainstream, radio-friendly sound, Phair and Wood revisit the same polished, confessional pop on Soberish, creating a warm and utterly irresistible summer record. Do not be fooled, however, as Phair is not your run-of-the-mill pop songwriter, but instead the fearlessly unique songstress responsible for such timeless alt rock classics as “Never Said” and “Fuck and Run”—a fact which has remained ever-present on each of her albums.
Indeed, the major appeal of Liz Phair, as was the case on Exile, is that it is difficult for her to pretend to be anybody other than her notoriously candid, charmingly transgressive self—equal parts ribald and romantic, urgent and facetious, the perfect mind for rhyming “dicking around” with “chickening out,” which happen to be two major themes of her newest record.
On “Spanish Doors,” the album’s first single and opening track, we are treated to a frantic breakup anthem not unlike something Phair might have recorded 28 years ago. Against an industrial stomp, Phair conjures imagery of drunken stumbles toward the bathroom, remarking, “The ghost I see in the mirror doesn’t smile anymore.”
“The Game,” a standout track, bears a striking resemblance to the sound of alt rock group Ivy. In Phair’s case, this is a complement, as she emerged from the same ’90s indie music scene as the late Adam Schlesinger and company, making the style familiar ground and naturally achievable for her. This song works, as does the subsequent “Hey Lou”—a gritty tribute to the American avant-garde icon and undeniable influence on Phair’s earlier music—which serves its purpose, often sounding remarkably like a Velvet Underground cover song.
There is a great variety to discover on Soberish, with no song feeling derivative of another, which stands as a virtue Phair has managed to maintain throughout her career. The naked vulnerability of the striking pop ballad “In There” is especially clear and accessible, her declaration of “Damn it, I don’t want to be alone” cutting to the bone. Similarly, the nostalgic “Sheridan Road” finds Phair exploring that same devastated sense of longing as she strums through wistful memories of Lakeshore Drive and smoking on the roof, while the broodingly soulful “Soul Sucker” and the delicately tragic “Lonely Street” see her making the most of her versatile voice.
However, the definitive masterwork of Soberish is its title track, which opens in the lounge of the St. Regis Hotel, where Phair, waiting for her date, is “sitting by the window/wearing white.” As the seconds turn to minutes, anxiety overcomes her, and she turns to the nearby bar to ease her nerves. It is here that Phair lays it all on the table as she grapples to explain, “I meant to be sober/But the bar’s so inviting.”
The impeccable pop sensibilities of the title track—as well as of the album’s other top track, the dysfunctionally triumphant “Dosage”—allow Phair to explore the grimly amusing landscape of her own experienced imagination. Against a shimmering backdrop of danceable singalong choruses, Phair pairs quips such as “Thanks for the drink, but I think you’re overserved/I’d rather roll you a joint with weed the bartender sold me” with learned words of wisdom only she could deliver, singing “Take a page from this well worn book/A fun night could lead to sex and scandal” or “Dosage is everything/It hurts you or it helps.”
The final product is catchy, absorbing, and entirely unashamed, bearing the sort of intimate honesty of a classic Liz Phair record, but finishing with a glaze of straightforward hindsight. Reflection is key, now that the twentysomething lo-fi queen of Exile in Guyville is now a fiftysomething industry veteran who has seen her fair share of calamity and heartache, weathered the scorn of critics and the five-year career slump that culminated in her 10-year absence, only to return triumphantly to the scene with a refreshingly unique gem of a record that packs an emotional punch while providing a compulsively listenable pop music experience.
Soberish may leave certain critics and listeners feeling dissatisfied, perhaps longing for the old days, but Phair has persevered long enough to hold her own, coming fully equipped with the inimitable songwriting expertise, sardonic wit, and aching soul that made her so relatable to begin with. (www.lizphairofficial.com)
Author rating: 8.5/10
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