In preparation for this Between the Grooves series, I held a number of conversations about Exile in Guyville with fellow listeners and writers. During one of these chats, friend and essayist Suzanne Richardson noted—with affection—that the opening notes of “Help Me Mary”, Guyville’s second track, are curiously reminiscent of your standard early ‘90s sitcom theme-song. It was a comparison I’d never considered, but after a few recent spins, the observation feels oddly spot-on. There’s a boppy bounciness about the tune, a merry completeness to it that feels as though it is introducing and framing a familiar, digestible narrative. This is not to diminish the song’s power, mind you; on the contrary, it highlights Phair’s supreme ability to blend tones and moods, to have the music tell us one thing while the lyrics shrewdly convey another.
The story here is simple—hit up Google and you’ll find dozens of variations on it, either courtesy Phair herself or the countless critics who have taken the opportunity to seize on what feels like one of the most literal, autobiographical moments on the album to angle their analyses (alongside later track “Divorce Song”, also often reduced to its easiest rhyme): Phair sings of having to endure a shitty roommate and his revolving door of too-cool Chicago rocker buds (a bit of research reveals them to be the Urge Overkill “guys”, and that they actually assisted in coining the album’s title) who intimidate to her to the point where she confesses a survivalist need to “practice all [her] moves” and “memorize their stupid rules”. It’s a universal roommates-from-hell tale, a twisted take on a Real World scenario: this is the true story of a girl who lives in a loft with a rude jerk and his gang of grody, grungy friends who “bully the stereo and drink, [and] leave suspicious things in the sink”.
“Mary” is, on the surface, the most juvenile-in-theme and perhaps accessible track on the record, but since this is a Liz Phair joint, what’s boiling beneath is always far more telling and complicated. For starters, it’s a serious leap from the previous track, “6’1””, where Phair’s confident aggression is on full display and in high gear. There’s a breeziness about that number, an emotional openness, its arms stretched wide without ever grazing a boundary. But mere seconds later, we’re seemingly in backslide, now envisioning our guiding voice as a paranoid prisoner in her own home (“I lock my door at night / I keep my mouth shut tight”).
“They egg me on / And keep me mad”, she tells us, softly pleading backing vocals reiterating her bitter frustration at their continuous condescension. And in the strangest, most unsettling piece of imagery, Phair feels as though they “play me like a pitbull in a basement”. It is this moment, through the notion of being made to fight her way out, this subtle sense of violence, that elevates the track to reveal something far more sinister at the root of Phair’s quiet rage. It is also here that we begin to pay closer to attention to Phair’s careful word choice: the “bully”ing of the stereo, the idea that amidst this tyranny, she’s still willing to “show them just how far I can bend”. This is Phair’s Lady Macbeth-lite, a mask of tolerance and poise suppressing a burning interior “disgust” she prays she might someday “weave… into fame / And watch how fast they run to the flame”. And these final seconds of “Mary” reveal to us that, during this plea to a divine feminine entity for strength (though, the jury’s still out on whether Phair intends the Virgin or the Magdalene), a glimpse of the put-upon Phair in fact crafting a blueprint for what’s next, relishing this experience as fodder for the eventual compositions that will in fact usher her into the spotlight and shame those misogynist brutes.
Also of note: this is the first and only time on Guyville that Phair directly addresses a female character or subject. Throughout the album, the only female Phair questions or sings to, when not addressing or dressing down the men in her narratives, is herself. This particular detail is important because the next track is where the album’s preoccupation with female sexuality—embracing it, denying it, paying a price for it—is introduced.
Once “Mary” closes out, we get to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it beauty that is “Glory”, barely 90 seconds in length and our first peaceful moment on the record. The opening acoustic guitar is so quiet that you might find yourself cranking the volume at first to be sure that something is even playing. Phair’s vocals are practically a murmur, accompanied by faint doubling of the lead vocal track. She sings of a guy’s “really big tongue” that “rolls way out”. She tells us it is “circa 1981”, calling to mind an image of Phair at 14 (if we are to believe her dating; we’ll revisit this numbers game in a few weeks when we consider “Fuck and Run”), and, for what seems to be the first time, on the album, maybe in her life, someone is “shining some glory on” her.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “glory” as “honor, praise, adoration”, but further examination yields reference to “devout ejaculation in worship of various religious sects”. It is here that Phair bridges and blurs the line between the spiritual and the sexual. We need not be crass or graphic to unpack Phair’s suggestions (especially when Phair restrains herself in a spot where it would have been so easy to do the opposite). She maintains a kind of innocence in that moment, even as she’s losing it, the entire song a muffled gasp, a soft sigh. It’s Guyville‘s tenderest moment, repairing some of the aches and bruises of “Help Me Mary”. After two tracks of male dominance and manipulation, there’s kindness being bestowed upon Phair. It’s also a brilliant bit of sequencing move, the uncommon, spite-work prayer of “Help Me Mary” segueing into “Glory”‘s spiritual and sexual awakening.
// Moving Pixels
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