Originally written and published by me for Spectrum Culture.
The last time we heard from Liz Phair, she was rapping on 2010’s Funstyle, which was understandably the result of mixed to negative reviews. But the backlash wasn’t nearly as polarizing as the one caused by her 2003 self-titled album, where the indie rock singer who became a feminist legend with Exile in Guyville in the early ‘90s was now finding herself exiled by her peers for recording a pop rock album produced by the people who helped propel Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff to fame and fortune. After a noticeable absence from music in the 2010s, Phair returns this month with Soberish—her first record in 11 years—produced solely by Brad Wood, with whom she notably collaborated on Guyville. Their highly anticipated reunion set the stage for what could have been a significant comeback, but the end result is ultimately underwhelming.
“There’s so many ways to fuck up a life / I’ve tried to be original / Done plenty more wrong than I ever did right / Still I’m not a criminal,” she sings on lead single “Good Side,” which eloquently calls out a music industry plagued by patriarchal ageism. Phair, however, long ago gave up trying to be whomever her label or management wanted her to be—no matter how flawless “Why Can’t I?” sounds every time you rewatch 13 Going on 30. “If I wanted to make this last even longer / I’d do what I did, only sweeter and stronger/ But that wouldn’t stop my true nature from showing up / Eventually.” In an era that’s been largely defined by the validation of trauma and discrimination experienced by women in the workplace, Phair’s lyrics make a compelling case for the importance of refusing to sacrifice one’s own self-worth and artistic identity, no matter how many times you’ve tried to reinvent yourself. Unfortunately, Soberish’s ability to remain compelling ends there.
Aside from the fact that several songs on the record sound like unfinished rough-cut demos rather than completed album tracks—“Sheridan Road,” “Ba Ba Ba” and “Soul Sucker” for instance—Phair’s vocal performance leaves something to be desired. It was certainly her lo-fi growl that aided her catapult to fame on Guyville and Whip-Smart, but here she almost sounds bored by her own creations, even though her lyrical content represents a woman who has lived through enough life to offer some words of wisdom: “I used to be just like you / Doing a little more than what I thought I could handle / Take a page from this well worn book / A fun night can lead to sex and scandal / Dosage is everything / It hurts you or it helps / Go take your medicine / And call me when you’re well.”
Perhaps Soberish would have been a bit more captivating if Phair had further employed the unabashed, confessional style heard on “Good Side” or “Dosage” instead of the unconvincing relationship woes heard on “Hey Lou” or “Lonely Street.” A notable exception would be “The Game,” which is easily the album’s strongest track. The album’s strongest quality, however, would be its ability nonetheless deliver a fully grown, subdued version of a female musician who is so incredibly done playing “the game” that she would rather sacrifice everything than not be her authentic self for even one song. As she wrote to her fans back in 2010 upon the release of pop-rap songs, “These are all me. Love them, or hate them, but don’t mistake them for anything other than an entirely personal, un-tethered-from-the-machine, free for all view of the world, refracted through my own crazy lens. This is my journey. I’ll keep sending you postcards.”
Jeffrey’s favorites from Soberish: “The Game,” “Good Side,” “Lonely Street,” and “Dosage”