Much of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville touches on the tension between escapism and the eventual, often harsh, returns to reality. Throughout the record, Phair’s narrative voices dream of extrication from emotionally destructive situations, either for themselves (“Canary”, “Shatter”, “Help Me Mary”) or wish it for the detached men they desire in the misguided belief it will restore equity and dignity to their dysfunctional union (“Dance of the Seven Veils”). Guyville itself is an experiment in escape, a sequence of songs inspired by Phair’s desperation to both survive and thrive within a time, place, and scene that oppresses and misunderstands her efforts at every turn. Her endurance was sustained in the hopes that the album’s success would prove her worthy enough to occupy the same space as the hipster jerks she was singing about and also offer her an opportunity to leave them in the dust, metaphorically and geographically. It’s this kind of active, knowing contradiction that makes Phair’s vision as a storyteller unique and Guyville an important and rare musical document, a piece of personalized propaganda that allowed Phair to sell herself to the very shitheads she was selling out.
So, it makes even more nonsensical sense that “Stratford-on-Guy”*, the album’s penultimate track, should find Phair “flying into Chicago at night”, causing us to scratch our heads as we bop them along to the steady rhythm. Isn’t Guyville some alternate reality version of Chicago, the place where Phair took her blows, made her observations, and managed to eke out dozens of absurdly clever yet musically diffident tunes that would go on to seal her fate as the realest bitch on the block? If she’s flying into Chicago, then where exactly has she been for the past 50 minutes? Are we assuming some sort of gap or lag in the timeline of Guyville’s interwoven narratives? Is this flight back into Chicago a figurative one, a bracing of the self to make a “return”, to start over, and face the music armed with the lessons learned from the creation of her own? Regardless of our efforts to understand the song’s physical setting — after all, she’s suspended thousands of feet in the air, making countless allusions to the experience feeling like she’s in some celluloid fantasy (the stewardess who looks kind of like Brigitte Bardot, the “landscape roll[ing] out like credits on a screen”, the sense that her “circumstance is movie sized”) — we can clearly intuit Phair’s confidence. She’s been through the ringer and come out the other side quite Zen. She’s literally floating above ground, looking down on the past, ready to descend into the present and the future (the devoted listener will hear a parallel between this and “My Bionic Eyes” from her 2003 eponymous pop effort, in which she complains that as she “got light as a feather / They got stiff as a board”, a nod, I think, to the transcendence “Stratford” celebrates).
It’s easy, tempting even, to reduce “Stratford” to its bare essentials, to write it off as a great song structured around, and works because of, its simplicity: Phair reflecting on the weirdness of flight, the oddity of the sky’s natural beauty, the strange juxtaposition of a plane’s claustrophobia despite hurling us as close to the heavens as possible. But even with that reduction comes complication and reaffirmation of Phair’s ability to both cut something to its core and reflect its vast open-endedness upon the blank walls of our minds. When she declares that “It took an hour / Maybe a day / But once I really listened / The noise just fell away” — an impeccable, empowering lyric on an album that plays at times like a collections of greats spanning a very long career, let alone a debut — she is bespeaking a very distinct clarity of mind after weathering a cycle of potentially soul-damaging storms**. That chorus so succinctly encapsulating the stresses, disappointments and grit of Guyville without necessitating the redundancy of any crude imagery. For a song so non-specific in terms of story, it manages to be spectacularly vivid and spot-on. The smallness and nothingness in the details are everything.
*“Stratford-on-Guy” appears to be a play on Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare. Phair penned her Girly Sounds in Chicago, her “Stratford-on-Guy” — a subtle but purposeful joke on her part, and confirmation of the track’s assuredness.
**The original Girly Sound recording contained a rather bleak chorus: “You better look / Look to your right / ‘Cause I’m going to take this plane out / In less than five minutes / And this, this is your very last sight”. As this was written prior to Phair’s eventual enlightenment through the trajectory of the more refined Guyville, the contrast is quite telling.