Strange Loops: Liz Phair – “Help Me Mary”/ “Glory”

Liz Phair
Exile in Guyville
Matador
1993-06-22

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”).

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