How does an artist follow up on a masterpiece? Liz Phair’s debut album, Exile in Guyville, is widely perceived as a singular feat – a musical masterpiece. To come out with such a powerhouse achievement as one’s first offering is of course both a blessing and a curse. Nothing – in reality or perception – will ever live up to the promise, raw talent, the tapping into something very personal and universal that Phair’s first album ignited. It’s like many genius debuts. Living up to that standard or to the hype is an impossible feat. (Think the Stone Roses debut – they never came close to that brilliance and took a damn long time to produce a second album, which was mediocre entertainment at best, especially by comparison.)
That said, I would argue that Phair’s follow-up, Whip-Smart, was quite a neat, tidy and catchy sophomore effort. In fact, it is one of those rare albums, like Exile in Guyville or Nine Inch Nails’s Pretty Hate Machine that has nary a misstep, and thus invites repeated listens to the entire album and not just one song here or there. (I have given a lot of thought to how important the whole album used to be.)
I felt slightly less enthusiastic with Phair’s third album, Whitechocolatespaceegg. It was quite different, but upon many listens, over time, I enjoy it and find myself thinking of songs from the album and singing them to myself at times. I don’t keep returning to the album as I do with the first two, but it’s still not at all bad.
While I won’t say that I detest her self-titled album from 2003, I can only say that it sounds considerably less sophisticated (although more commercially polished – not necessarily a good thing), a whole lot more desperate and some of the songs sound like a woman knocking on middle-age trying to convince herself (and the rest of the world) that she’s still hot. A lot of people would applaud this, but the way Phair went about it just felt like taking ten steps backwards in terms of songwriting. Her work on Exile was quite sexually explicit but felt important, like commentary or a look at the inner processing that takes place when engaging in a whole lot of casual and often meaningless sex. It never felt gratuitous or calculated as a shock maneuver, even if in many cases it did shock. The more recent self-titled album screamed out, “I’m still here. I need attention, so let’s talk about my sex life with a younger man!”
Considered, reconsidered: Fine and dandy if that kind of attention-grabbing promotion worked, but it was the beginning of the end of my being a Liz Phair fan. Or at least it made me a far more discerning skeptic. I will never discount the impact of the earlier work and absolutely won’t say that Phair is not gifted enough to surprise me.