Over three months ago, when plotting how I might tackle and do justice to Liz Phair’s seminal debut Exile in Guyville for this special edition of Between the Grooves, I found myself, strangely (heh), most worried about how to title the series. Titles are a tricky thing, an entity unto themselves, a representation of a whole tasked with both piquing reader interest and serving as a freestanding, overarching thesis. I conferred with editors and Phair-natics alike as I mulled my options (“Deaf Before Dumb” came close, but that was more an indulgent bid for street cred than anything else—which in itself would have somewhat of a fitting commentary given the circumstances under which Guvyille was birthed into existence). As my introductory essay posited, and many subsequent entries reiterated, Phair the creator and the Phair the album-narrative’s protagonist (and antagonist, at times, depending on what perspective she’s embodying on a particular track), respectively, are stuck in hazy cycles of manic confidence and victimhood, acts (and daydreams) of extreme (often sexual) aggression and defeatist passivity, and the romanticizing and demonizing of domestic stability.
On my billionth listen, I came to realize that the perfect title had, of course, been there for me all along (I should never have doubted the answer would reveal itself, given the intricacy and care Phair took with every composed aspect of the record). Phair’s—and her song characters’—journey was all one big strange loop. And what a thoughtful and purposeful term choice on her part (no surprise there) to boot: “loop” carries with it musical connotations (so much of Guyville is about making music, and loving and hating men who make music); the notion of being “in the loop”, in the know and on the scene; it also of course is grounded in repetition and circlings and cycles; and, finally, subtly, the dreaded and desired rings of commitment are in themselves loops. One could go on and on with Phair’s clever word choice—which she, in true Phair style, never utters once on the song—but at this point, we get the picture.
And Phair knows it.
By the time the unexpectedly bright “Strange Loop” begins, and our Guyville journey ostensibly comes to its close, we have been so immersed in the quirks, characters, and corners of this fictitious, conceptual land that Phair’s final act is to catch us off guard. If Guyville were a thriller, “Loop” would be its masterful twist ending, its final stab at testing just how closely the viewer has been paying attention, a challenge to watch (or, in this case, listen) all over again to figure out how it all worked, how all the pieces snapped into place to create such a seamless structure (another act of looping, if you will).
The opening notes of “Loop” sound curiously close to “6’1””, the album’s proper opening, and the final seconds of “Loop” even more so. But that’s the easy stuff. What “Loop” really achieves is a masterful accumulation of Guyville’s central concerns, tropes, and musical tricks that, when shaken up and re-presented, sounds more hopeful and optimistic than anything else on the album. It’s unclear if this song is from the male or female perspective—Phair decidedly does her husky androgynous vocal thing—and it doesn’t really matter; “Strange Loop” is a bashful bid for redemption, an unreliable lover seeking another chance but copping to only a piece of the blame (“I can’t be trusted / They say I can’t be true / But I only wanted more than I knew”). It sounds like a plea either party could be making, and perhaps at turns each is in fact doing just that, but regardless of who this confession is coming from, it’s uncharacteristic coming from either side, the song’s earnest sentiment as shocking as anything on an album. For the Phair character to plainly own up to having changed, to wanting to give love a shot despite the pained and taxing experiences she’s recounted throughout the record feels like both progress and regression. Coming from one of the Guys in the Ville, it’s a bit harder to swallow, and though we really, really want to believe it for Phair’s sake, knowing what we know — and knowing what Phair herself has whispered into our ears, the inside she look she’s given us into truths we can’t ever un-know — we’d be fools to fall for it.
As we all also know, though, with each fresh infatuation come a new hope and a temporary blindness. “Strange Loops” ends with an extended instrumental jam, Phair’s guitar and accompanying drums and bass being played within an inch of their lives before quickly extinguishing themselves into silence. It’s messy, discordant, and desperately jubilant—an apt embodiment of the ideas of love and its imminent loss so uniquely specific to Liz Phair and her Exile in Guyville.
*“Soap Star Joe” / “Explain It to Me”