Rarely does a song capture the essence of its imagery through its acoustics as effectively as “Shatter”. To describe and dissect with words Exile in Guyville’s most achingly beautiful track is to do it a disservice and enact a small betrayal of what makes “Shatter” so brilliant in its composition. It is Guyville’s most tender spot and its longest by nearly two minutes, thanks to the song’s hypnotic, meandering opening instrumental, that signature echoing-jangle of Liz Phair’s perfectly imperfect chord work rising and falling against a tremulous bass line that evokes both an urgency and a slowing.
“Shatter” begs to be experienced on headphones, safe from outside distraction, its listener’s eyes closed, body in recline, as vulnerable and receptive to its musical and lyrical impact as possible: the feeling of the summer breeze in your hair; the dark highway insufficiently illuminated by headlights; the shallow, contemplative breaths that both remind us of our solitude and mirror the track’s minute but wrenching movements. And while “Shatter” fits the trajectory of the Guyville narrative, it also deserves to be heard in isolation from the rest of the album, for “Shatter” is quite cinematic in its scope, its steady and sustained intro providing the kind of tonal encompassment requisite of any great film score.
Phair asserts that she doesn’t “always realize / How sleazy it is / Messing with these guys”, though we’re unsure if she’s doing the messing or being messed with. At this point, though, it’s safe to assume it an either/or scenario, as Phair has made as many grievances as she has confessions throughout Guyville and trying to peel them would prove futile. What matters here is that there’s something clear but unnamable about the “you” of “Shatter” that “slapped [her] right in the face / Nearly broke [her] in two.” Phair’s delivery tells us this experience is, despite her choice of words, a gentle one, and the metaphorical violence is that of crushing affection rather than the patterns of critique she’s previously experienced. “It’s a mark,” she tells him and us, she will carry “for a long, long time”. And instantly we understand that, despite how she feels, hearts have already been, or are in the process of being, broken—the suggestion quite strong that Phair is, for an unhappy change, the perpetrator in this instance. That she’s singing so softly, in her distinctive near-hum, in the past tense clues us in that she’s in the act of putting distance between them even before she subsequently delivers the crushing lyrics that confirm it.
“I don’t know if I could drive a car / Fast enough to get to where you are,” she laments, “Or wild enough / Not to miss the boat completely.” The risks she’s describing here are, of course, not literal, but emotional. The notion of contemplating recklessness, of succumbing to a sense of abandon as a means of connection is extended in the form of an even more complicated vessel: “I don’t know if I could fly a plane / Well enough to tailspin out your name / Or high enough to lose control completely.” The move from car to plane is key; as she’s rationalizing her inability to make it work, she must impose this analogy in order to convince him that she isn’t confident enough or equipped to rise to the occasion.
She buttons these ponderings on the likely dangers and disappointments her time in Guyville has taught her to anticipate, no matter how appealing the prospects, by sing-sighing, “Honey, I’m thinking maybe / You know just maybe.” This is the ambivalence she’s learned along the way, and though we can hear her inherent resistance to it, can feel that at her core she wants to take the plunge, to lose control and give herself over to the possibility of things being different this time, there’s ultimately a scarring mistrust—in him, in herself—that she cannot escape, that she must consider every bit as profoundly and knowingly as she does the way she feels. Resolution, it seems, can come only from removal, and so she makes the heart-heavy decision to do so.
“Shatter” is one of many tracks on Guyville in which the title never appears in the body of the song itself, an invitation by Phair for us to decipher how it might fit into the puzzle. Here, “shatter” seems to reflect the notion of a weakening, an impairment. This Guy has abruptly, momentarily shattered the cynical expectation that Phair has cultivated that these men will always always shatter any expectation she holds them to, a terrible cycle of damned-do’s and don’ts that will ultimately reward and satisfy no one. The man in “Shatter” has managed to break down her resolve, but in the end her faith has perhaps suffered too many knocks for her to see it through.