What Makes You Happy

Polyester bride: Liz Phair

Liz Phair

In 1993 Liz Phair came down from her Winnetka turret to help college age repressives get in touch with their secret feelings about décolleté and duct tape. Her debut, Exile in Guyville, mixed heady bravura with aching lament, and its frank odes to the allure of the "fresh young Jimmy" aroused the mojos of dean's-list girls with too much at stake to go with rowdy misfits like L7. The old guard was disconcerted, but the little indie boys understood. Appropriating her urge--and fueled by her overkill--we girls took them home and made them like it. And if they "left us nothing," we could, like Phair, indulge in sweet fantasies of "tossing them up and pumping them full of lead."

Phair's genius has always been for fantasies sprung from the precise pen of the passive observer. Her first songs weren't about thinking on your feet, or slinging zingers at the straw-man rockboy she called Johnny Sunshine; they were about crafting retorts later in your bedroom and living off their power. This was softcore written by a silver spooner who probably never had it rougher than compounded credit card debt, and never had It any rougher than a make-out session with a guy who'd gone a couple days without a shave.

On Whitechocolatespaceegg, the Daisy razor's edge and cunning lingo that changed the lives of upper-middle-class white twenty-something indie-rockers are still in effect. "I'll see you around/Every hollow has its favorite sound," sings Phair on the swirling title track. That hollow is bedroom ambience or the perfectly reverberant space a musician seeks for recording. It's the warm hollow of a vinyl groove. It's uterine. It's the body of a guitar or the inside of a piano. It's sex, sadness, and sanctuary. It's the personification of some kind of emptiness. Or maybe it's the four-year gap between Phair's second album, Whip Smart, and this, her third.

In the protracted tween-release lapse, we've seen her brash, dry delivery validated by heirs/imitators big and small--from Sheryl Crow, Meredith Brooks, and Alanis Morissette, to lesser-knowns like Cat Power's Cham Marshall and Sarge's Elizabeth Elmore. Her new album, though, is perhaps best considered alongside recent releases filled with snapshots of domesticity by Kristin Hersh and/or Julie Doiron. Phair's marriage to video director Jim Staskaukas and her new mommyhood have certainly shaped her writing: She's a big girl now, a role model standing by her man in the winners' circle of art and commerce. Too mainstream? Come on, we didn't want her to be a freak, even if we did wanna freak her.

The multi-cook chaos surrounding the new record's production (no fewer than four producers plus Phair on the knobs) may explain its curiously weak start. Throwaway rockers up front include "Johnny Feelgood," a token S&M jag in which Phair squeezes out a spark or two via lines about being knocked around in the back of some jerk's beater. It isn't until the formulaic but fun "Polyester Bride"--a narrative about getting advice and free liquor from a knowing bartender--that Phair starts taking us home. Her jokes are always best when subtle. Yet "Polyester Bride" is pure radio pop, blithely sabotaged early on by elitist lyrics like "So I asked Henry my bartending friend/If I should bother dating unfamous men."

On the cute '70s AM pop of "Love Is Nothing," Phair tells us, like a matter-of-fact Mary Poppins, that "love is nothing like they say/You gotta pick up the little pieces every day." But this slides up next to a silly-sexy, train-yard blues-boogie with lines about getting it on in transit and the feeling of silky underwear sliding on seat upholstery. Midway through, the songs dig in. For the truly affecting "Only Son," Phair uses her now mature gift for role-playing and assumes the male persona of a family ne'er-do-well, wringing unprecedented pathos from her lyrics while punctuating phrases with characteristically strange chords. In "What Makes You Happy," easily the sweetest conceit here, a cheery but tired daughter chats with mom about the newest in a succession of loves: "I'm sending you this photograph/I know this one is gonna last/And all those other bastards were only practice."

Phair ends with one of her best offerings yet, "Girls' Room," a dreamlike return to the safety of teenhood, where Liz and her gossiping best friends in tight sweaters are catty, pure, and secretly afraid. The "Girls' Room" is a sacred space, and the world beyond it is scary. She stands on the precipice: "I'm sleeping in the girls' room/I'm sleeping in the sky/I'm sleeping in the water... I'm sleeping in the girls' room tonight." Those who wrung hands in the hype days, when our fan clubhouse was raided by the masses and we had to share our new pal with a legion of philistine doppelgängers distinguished from us only by their subscriptions to Rolling Stone, can rest assured: This one won't sell her out.

The record is a fun dispatch, and Liz Phair still doesn't care to be truly popular. She's not a populist. She's content to be our money-voiced voyeur, bringing her sounds and sense to a clinging fandom's sleepy hollow via tunes as smooth as Henri Bendel glass trinkets, and lessons as costly as growing up.

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