Liz Phair once said that she composed Exile in Guyville not for fame or for the masses, but rather “made the whole album for a couple of people to see and know me.” This is the kind of difficult and complicated confession that makes Guvyille so powerful and, ultimately, so effectively subversive. Phair was aiming not high, but pointedly, wishing to prove herself capable and courageous to select naysayers in the Chicago indie scene. It’s only fitting then that “Never Said”, the lead single from Guyville and arguably its most “radio friendly” track, the one ostensibly chosen to pique listener interest and introduce Phair to the world, would be a song where she repeatedly, defensively, and sometimes unconvincingly swears that she “never said nothing”. In her first bid to be heard, to communicate something of her self and her musical message, she promised that she hadn’t “utter[ed] a sound”.
“Never Said” offers familiar narrative elements: a supposed-to-be-secret tryst, the juvenile practice of takesiesbacksies, the spreading and denial of rumors, and the aching frustration of being stuck somewhere between the truth and someone else’s manipulation of it. Musically, it’s one of the album’s highlights, and like any good single from just about any good record, it easily and successfully stands on its own merits. But for all of the catchiness of its single-line chorus, its era-appropriate layering of grungy and wailing guitars, its shimmery drum beats and modest tempo shifts, “Never Said” is startling in its undoing of the four previous tracks’ character developments. In one fell swoop, that quiet control Phair’s persona has taken (so far) over her album-long circumstance all but disintegrates as she performs this backpedaling act, suddenly cornered in a damned-if-she-do-or-don’t predicament, the sovereignty she’s claimed for herself so abruptly undermined.
She’s powerless against these anonymous gossips (“Don’t know where you heard it / Don’t know who’s spreading it around”) that have so persuasively turned a lover against her. What’s worse, the perceived accusations hurled at her (Phair cleverly sings only in response and never dignifies the insinuations by verbalizing them) allow him to call Phair’s every move, past and present, into question (“Don’t look at me sideways / Don’t even look me straight on / And don’t look at my hands in my pockets baby / I ain’t done anything wrong”). Of course, her attempts to clear her name, as convention goes, only threaten to solidify her guilt. Phair’s insistent, obsessive need to remain in this fight, as opposed to walking away or ignoring the chatter, may well betray an insecurity that the tracks preceding “Never Said” seemed to suggest she’d moved past. Or perhaps it suggests a desire for a kind of justice, to hold her accuser’s feet to flame and make him accountable for the callow position he’s taken and put her in, escaping his own culpability by simply refusing to look her in the eye or name names. Or maybe, it’s all of the above. For a song so sparse and devoid of details, it imposes a wide conceptual valley.
Finally, let’s consider the curious video clip for “Never Said”. Shot on a sunny day at Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory in 1993, we see images of Phair waist deep in shallow water, goofily pretending to drown, cautiously traipsing about a greenhouse as though it were a jungle, and dancing around with her guitar, her huge smile and twinkling blue eyes warm and inviting in a way that is at odds with the song’s lyrical content. Phair appears to be having the time of her life, and there are even animated photo booth strips of her grinning and posing that appear intermittently in the corners of the frame. These carefree, outdoor scenes are intercut with shots of two hipster boys in a dark room giggling and whispering to one another like schoolgirls, giddily, secretly bopping along to something on the radio. Phair may not have “let the cat out” but that visual says it all.