After reading a solid month of “decade’s best” lists, I couldn’t help but think back to my “Best Album of the ’90s” pick, Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. I occasionally have pangs of regret not choosing Radiohead’s OK Computer because technically, I believe it’s a superior album. But in general, I have no qualms about letting this pick stand because while other albums may have defined their specific genres like Nirvana’s Nevermind and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Guyville perfectly encapsulated not one but two major defining trends of that decade: the rise of a new generation of female singer/songwriters and the do-it-yourself ethos of indie rock, which took on a whole new life this past decade.
When Phair’s album came out (and several years after), most people I talked to readily brought up one of two songs: “Flower” and “Divorce Song”. For many, “Flower” was often-quoted because of the brazen, graphic lyrics, which was one of the first major elements of the album that made critics take notice. At one party, a fellow student talked about how she quoted the lyrics to her boyfriend whom she didn’t think knew the artist or album, and the boyfriend said “Can you say something to me that did not come from a Liz Phair song?”
I happen to favor “Divorce Song”. What it lacks in shock value, it more than makes up in songwriting and the music itself. Other albums like Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love and Beck’s Sea Change are wonderful accounts of eroding relationships, but few singular songs can document the absolute implosion of a relationship in the span of three minutes.
More than 15 years after “Divorce Song” dropped, I continue to be amazed at the straightforwardness of the song. Where many indie rock bands of today seem intent on burying their emotions through multiple layers of irony, “Divorce Song” was one of those songs that sounded like a conversation. It wasn’t like a Tori Amos song, where you would imagine writing your feelings out in a letter and making multiple revisions. It felt in the moment and as a listener, you felt like you were peering in the window of a couple’s last day together.
“And when I asked for a separate room / It was late at night and we’d been driving since noon.”
With that opening line, you automatically feel the claustrophobia of being in close quarters with two others: your significant other and a huge mass of emotional baggage. Music-wise, Phair and producer Brad Wood were savvy enough to keep things fairly light. For such a low-fi song, it has one of the best bass lines for a song. Good enough to make the song a preset option when testing out new headphones.
Whereas other breakup songs usually force a listener to take a side, Phair keeps things fairly level. “And it’s true that I stole your lighter / And it’s also true that I lost the map / But when you said that I wasn’t worth talking to…” Right at this point, a lesser singer/songwriter would use this as a springboard for a rockling, damning retaliation chorus, but Phair lets that line hit and sink in your stomach with her resigned response “I had to take your word on that.”
Though the lyrics are straightforward, it hasn’t stopped people from debating. Phair’s line “…it’s harder to be friends than lovers/ And you shouldn’t try and mix the two / ‘Cause if you do it and you’re still unhappy/ Then you know that the problem is you” can be seen as a cheap cop-out for some and a lifestyle mantra for others.
Phair may try to keep things evenhanded throughout “Divorce Song,” but at the end, a listener is probably going to be on the side of the singer as she delivers the final kiss-off “And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead / But if you’re tired of looking at my face I guess I already am / But you’ve never been a waste of my time / It’s never been a drag / So take a deep breath and count back from ten / And maybe you’ll be all right.” With that, a righteous harmonica solo straight out of Bob Dylan’s early days comes out from nowhere. It’s both defiant and even funny. It’s a Liz Phair that no longer exists for most of her fans, but it’s a high point on an album that’s full of them.