Strange Loops: Liz Phair – "Canary"

Joe Vallese

“Canary”, the eighth track on Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, and in many ways the album’s most significant thematic and tonal turning point, makes a strong case for why a musician -- especially one with as sharp a gift for word play as Phair -- need always publicly publish her official lyrics.

Liz Phair

Exile in Guyville

Label: Matador
US Release Date: 1993-06-22

Ask any familiar listener, casual or diehard, to sing the song’s infamous single-line chorus and invariably you’ll hear back: “Send it up on fire / Death before dawn." This sinister lyric holds for the track, ostensibly about a submissive wife figure detailing to an oppressive male subject her daily domestic routine in which she “cleans the house...., put[s] all [his] books in an order” and “makes up a colorful border”. The lyric is fitting, the assumed revenge she takes warranted. Phair is comparing herself to a canary (a bird known, apart from its more charming attributes, for its extreme nervousness and restlessness when caged and handled for too long), her accomplishments are tantamount to learning her name and “jump[ing] when [he] circle[s] the cherry”. The imagery is simple, even bordering a touch on clichéd '90s-grrl-angst, but Phair sells it with her flat, whispery vocal delivery against the chilly, sparse instrumentation that approaches near crescendo but reliably cops out each time like a weak tide approaching the shore.

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