Liz Phair Turns Elder Stateswoman on the Insightful, Elegant ‘Soberish’
“Soberish” marks Liz Phair’s first album in eleven years, one that finds her centered in a way that she seldom has been throughout her 30 years in the spotlight. Reunited with Brad Wood, the producer who cemented her polarizing stardom with songs like “Fuck and Run” and “Supernova,” Phair settles confidently into the role of angsty elder stateswomen, evoking strains of the classic rock that her sex-positive candor rebelled against in the early ‘90s with an overall polish and precision that highlights her maturity as a songwriter and performer.
Back on “Exile in Guyville,” Phair’s choice to flatten her voice felt like a shrewd and deliberate act of antagonism, refusing to capitulate to conventional femininity as she sang about one night stands and messier romantic entanglements than women were supposed to discuss; on “Spanish Doors,” the first song on “Soberish,” she wields that precision like a scalpel, doubling up on melodies to make herself like a one-woman Go-Gos — or more accurately, Buggles, whose “Video Killed The Radio Star” it distantly sounds like. Joe Walsh’s song for “The Warriors,” “In The City,” seems like an influence on the opening notes of “The Game,” but she quickly shifts into an arrangement that would have done gangbusters on mid ’90s alternative radio, especially with lyrics examining a relationship that keeps her constantly discombobulated: “By this time tomorrow, you’re gonna be so far away / And everytime I think we’re solid / You change the game.”
“Hey Lou” articulates a point of view that benefits from her age and experience, as Phair pleads to a friend who very likely has substance abuse issues, and has reached a point in their lives when rowdy intoxication isn’t fun to be around anymore. “No one knows what to think / When you’re acting like an asshole,” she sings. “Spilling all the drinks / Talking shit about Warhol.” Her songwriting chops are razor sharp, especially on songs like “In There,” where she sounds like a latter-day Aimee Mann as she delivers a relationship postmortem with piercing clarity, but inescapable regret, singing, “My confidence is shook / Don’t know where to look / Can’t believe you’re not mine this time.” Her successors have taken this middle-distance view and turned it into a subgenre of its own, but the experience in her voice gives weight to the songwriting that makes it feel adult but still fresh.
Although it’s about parting ways amicably at the end of a relationship, “Good Side” feels like it could be a veiled assessment of her career thus far, juggling her natural instincts and the ones that would keep her more conventionally relevant: “If I wanted to make this last even longer / I’d do what I did, only sweeter and stronger.” It too bears a Mann-esque imprint, albeit more because of elaborate but subdued instrumentation that recalls her sometime-producer Jon Brion. But where she might once have been more explicit on a song like “Ba Ba Ba,” she now demurs with a suggestion that feels even more provocative (“Yeah we’re gonna go on up to my hotel room / Make each other late”) because it’s couched in the thrilling promise of deeper feelings (“I don’t have the guts to tell you / That I feel safe”), especially between choruses that shift tempos and descend into coos of emotional instead of physical pleasure.
By the time she gets to the title track, it’s clear that Phair has lived at least a couple of the emotional lives of the young women trying to pick up her gauntlet: “I’m asking you / Tell me, why do we keep dicking around?” she asks. “Waited such a long time to be with you / Now I’m chickening out.” This is the perspective of a person who has loved, and failed, and fucked up, and loved again multiple times over, which for a slightly older listener feels much more lived in and relatable, especially as she conjures scenes with partners, friends and lovers with a tremendous specificity.
She finds a halfway point no one knew existed between “Ray Of Light” era Madonna and Luscious Jackson’s Kate Schellenbach on “Soul Sucker,” switching between her vocal identities over a mid tempo beat that could have been a soundtrack emanating out of Brooklyn brownstones in early 90s, and then pauses for a naked expression of longing on “Lonely Street,” a pretty, honest ballad about the daily experiences that distract, and don’t, from a long-distance lover. But even with two tracks left after it, “Dosage” exemplifies and encapsulates the themes, tone and sophisticated techniques of album as a whole; ostensibly offering a guidebook for getting into just enough trouble for it to be fun, she cautions a young companion from a place of experience, assuming the mantle of mentor for a generation of up-and-comers so they can enjoy the success that she did without suffering quite as many failures — or at least as many hangovers in the morning (“I used to be just like you / Doing a little more than what I thought I could handle… Thanks for the drink but I think you’re overserved / I’d rather roll you a joint.”)
Certainly if you lived through Phair’s original heyday, much less the uneven days that followed as she tried to maintain her commercial footing, then hearing music from her at all after 30 years, much less that you like, comes as a pleasant surprise. But “Soberish” is the right album from her at the right time as she leans into the skill she’s developed and authority she’s earned, confidently teaching a few lessons while realizing she still has a few yet to learn.
“Soberish” releases June 4 on Apple Music.