“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”.
That Liz Phair could write about the Groundhog’s Day of twentysomething single-girlhood with the kind of verve and nuance that makes Exile in Guyville so inimitable and so right-on remains an impressive, if not completely isolated, achievement—after all the early days of the ’90s also saw the likes of Tori Amos, Bjork, Ani DiFranco, and PJ Harvey changing the musical landscape. That Phair could write a song as hilarious and devastatingly poignant—and prophetic, it would later turn out—as “Divorce Song”, however, is a true testament to her gifts as a storyteller and keen observer of human behaviors, emotions, and the delicate imbalances in male and female perception that can send a once thriving relationship entirely off-course.
“Divorce Song”, another entry in the “domestic nightmare” branch of Phair’s catalog, employs the clichéd road trip scenario—all that time crammed into a hatchback driving cross country and getting on each other’s last nerve—that so often causes tempers to flare and hurtful truths to leak like engine oil, and unearths realizations about the extent to which each party intends to honor his or end of the presumed lifelong commitment. The road trip is, of course, an easy metaphor for the relationship itself, every aspect of what works and what doesn’t truncated into a successive, isolated sequence of moments that mirror the very best and worst of a coupling, an accelerated staging of the dooms that lie ahead. The great irony here is that it doesn’t quite make sense that sharing this particular space should bring out or exacerbate these qualities, that the seams should show more on this occasion than any other. But Phair understands that, even in the most intimate of relationships, we still possess the urge to exert and hold onto our autonomy and the personal routines, habits, and perceptions that constitute said individuality. As the song begins, Phair explains that she “asked for a separate room” because “it was late at night / And [they’d] been driving since noon.” She thinks nothing of it, given that she and her Guy have spent an abnormal number of hours in isolation, already expending that stretch a couple would typically share side by side at night, asleep and not interacting, in a space similarly confining as the marriage bed. To impose that separation as they pulled over for the evening seemed to Phair not offensive but practical. But when she reflects back on the request, she responds with both regret and self-spite: “If I’d known how that would sound to you / I would have stayed in your bed / For the rest of my life / Just to prove I was right / That it’s harder to be friends than lovers / And you shouldn’t try to mix the two / ‘Cuz if you do it and you’re still unhappy / Then you know that the problem is you.”
The husband’s subsequent insensitivity proves far more vitriolic than hers, far more punishing and esteem crushing. He lists off her minor failings—taking his lighter, losing their map—and then declares she isn’t “worth talking to”. That he uses her innocuous suggestion of separate sleeping quarters as an occasion to lash out in this severe way stuns Phair to her core, and we hear the quake in her voice as she scrambles to make sense of this false equivalency. This calls to mind, for Phair, how he’s set her up in the past for similar failure and ridicule, lamenting that “he put in [her] hand a loaded gun / And then told [her] not to fire it”, assigned her responsibilities and tasks and then “accused [her] of trying to fuck it up.” Despite his waffling and his effortless cruelty, Phair still promises that he’s “never been a waste of [her time] / It’s never been a drag.” “Take a deep breath and count back from ten,” she instructs, hopefully, pleadingly, “and maybe we’ll be all right.” Essentially, Phair has realized (or imagined) that even though the relationship has evolved on the surface, from the juvenilia of dating to the supposed maturity of marriage, the Guys in the Ville are engaging in the same old tricks, withholding opinions and feelings, existing in ambivalence Phair’s female voices have no choice but to interpret as everything being just fine, until that moment of such extreme, irreparable revelation. Had she fathomed what would have walked through the door she’d inadvertently opened, she certainly would have stayed in his bed and kept mum.
The song ends with a honkytonk-ish instrumental outro, evoking the image of someone either hightailing it out of town (has one of them left the other? Are they in the car together, continuing onward in their marital misery?) or maybe some raunchy makeup sex, since sex exists as both an equalizer and a demoralizer on Guyville, a creative and destructive force that plagues the women and men alike. Either way, we’re left not with an ending (there are still six more tracks) but rather the distinctive sense of an impasse. The car’s moving but the characters in “Divorce Song” are very much standing still.