- Surprise -- Liz doesn't care what critics think.
When Terry Wallis recently emerged from a 19-year coma, lots of things must have come as a shock. Super Value Meals. Serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Russell Crowe. He has a lot of catching up to do.
According to Liz Phair, so do rock critics, who might as well have been taking a 10-year snooze until the advances of her fourth, self-titled album landed on their desks a couple of months ago and woke those sorry asses up.
"I just don't understand why people hold up this record to Guyville," Phair complains, referring to her debut LP Exile in Guyville. Released a decade ago and justly considered seminal ever since, the album continues to haunt Phair's creative endeavors like a beloved but nonetheless obtrusive ghost.
"Look, I wrote Guyville between the ages of about 22 and 23," Phair explains, "and recorded it when I was 24. That album is 12 years old to me -- 12 years during which a lot of heavy shit has happened to me, and through which I've been writing, all the time. And in case people have forgotten," she continues, "I've actually released music since then. If you listen to Guyville and then Whip-Smart and then Whitechocolatespaceegg, and then the new one, I think the musical progression becomes pretty obvious. You don't have to like it, but this record didn't come out of nowhere. It wasn't some arbitrary decision I made."
If Phair sounds a little defensive, well, she is. And rightly so. Since its release last month, Liz Phair the album and Liz Phair the artist have both been subject to infuriated critical scrutiny, more befitting an investigation of botched pre-war intelligence than reviews of a pop album.
A pop album. And there, in a nutshell, is the rub: Liz Phair, the indie rock princess, has made an album as unabashedly, unashamedly pop as Guyville was unabashedly and unashamedly raw. Pitchfork Media, that arbiter of authenticity, deigned to give Liz Phair a rating of 0 on its website. If they thought Phair herself was going to care, they weren't listening to the rock snob fuck-off of Guyville as closely as they thought.
"I don't make music for critics," Phair says. "You know, after Guyville came out, there was a lot of pressure on me to follow it up with something as . . . explosive, or genius, or whatever word you want to use. And I tried. But it squelches my creativity. So I've realized that it's my job as an artist to pursue what I want to pursue. To follow my muse, if you will."
In the five-year incubation of Liz Phair, the artist followed her muse to quite a variety of places. After an aborted recording session with Gary Clark, the newly divorced and L.A.-relocated Phair began the musical equivalent of dating: some demos with Pete Yorn producer R. Walt Vincent (they reconnected later to fine-tune the tracks that landed on the album), a longer but stormy studio relationship with Michael Penn, and finally, a short but potent fling with The Matrix (best known for their work with Avril Lavigne).
If outsiders see the music industry as a bit like high school -- and in many ways, the metaphor is apt -- Liz Phair working with The Matrix was akin to the hot, brainy, arty girl going to the prom with the captain of the football team. The geeks were not happy.
"Oh sure, once word got out," Phair notes with a laugh, "the committee had already made its decision about the album. Oh, Liz Phair is compromising herself. Well," she continues, sounding more matter-of-fact than contemptuous, "my attitude toward that is, you do your critic thing, and I'll do my music thing. We don't have to see eye-to-eye.
"The other thing is that once you're inside the music industry, it's really not as discrete as people on the outside think it is. The bottom line is that The Matrix are incredibly good producers, and everyone -- and I do mean everyone -- respects how well they do their job. Again, you don't have to like it."
So, predictably, critical opinion on the album has divided according to those who gravitate to the big, catchy pop of Matrix tracks such as "Extraordinary," "Rock Me," and the first single "Why Can't I," and those who wish Phair had included more songs like the spare, introspective "Little Digger." The latter crowd barely misses a beat in describing that track -- which reflects on her young son's response to Mommy having a new man -- as the album's most "honest" moment.
Though Phair seems sanguine about the lashing her music has taken, the honesty question makes her angry.
"Okay, you're just going to have to take my word on this, but this record is way, way more honest than Guyville. In its situations, in its emotions. Writing Guyville was more of an intellectual process for me, whereas these songs are very much about who I am right now -- what I want, what I need, what I fear."
The catch is, on Liz Phair, its author doesn't seem to fear much. "Little Digger," with its lines like "I've done the damage, the damage is done/I pray to God that I'm the damaged one" may register as more honest to those people who equate honesty exclusively with vulnerability -- and who reject or dislike the truth-telling in Phair's paean to hot sex with a younger man on "Rock Me."
"That's absolutely true -- people want me to be vulnerable," Phair notes. "But the bottom line is that I'm not that Guyville girl anymore. In certain ways, yes, but I don't put myself in so many situations where I'm automatically vulnerable, and I'm older now, and I've been through a lot, and I have more confidence now. I couldn't stand the idea of making a record where I whined about being depressed about the things that have depressed me. I wanted -- maybe even needed -- to make a record, instead, that kicked some ass.
"When I'm really feeling skeptical about critics," Phair continues, "honestly, I think they are resisting the confidence of this record more than anything else."
But as Phair herself says, she doesn't make music for critics. Instead, she's made a rallying cry. Kind of like Exile in Guyville, in fact.