With her debut album Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair reset the female singer-songwriter genre in much the same way that artists like Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Chrissie Hynde, and Patti Smith did. The classic record’s raw emotion resonated with its listeners who made the record a modern classic. So much of Phair’s career afterward was responding to the overwhelming influence of Guyville and its looming presence over the rest of her discography. The album’s refreshing and startling honesty and naked sound was a refreshing blast of fresh air.
Guyville is a hard act to follow. Phair’s subsequent albums made for an interesting and eclectic body of work, peaking commercially with her mainstream pop record, 2003’s Liz Phair, which gave the indie hero her first top 40 hit record. From that album, Phair evolved into a contemporary alt-rock singer-songwriter, crafting smart, canny songs with sturdy hooks and memorable melodies. With her latest, Soberish, Phair continues on this musical path, penning a collection of tunes that marry her candid musings with polished, accomplished California rock sounds.
It’s been a decade since Liz Phair’s last LP, Funstyle, an album that seemed to embrace ironic, outsider art with its flirting with electropop, bhangra, and novelty-pop. Soberish doesn’t feel like an indulgence but a progression for a brilliant and singular talent who has settled into a comfortable niche. One thing listeners will notice is that Soberish shares the clean sheen of Liz Phair. For many purists, Phair’s embrace of pop was a sign of selling out. That’s a silly accusation to level, as high-quality pop can be just as smart as lo-fi indie rock. And most importantly, Phair has the chops to craft some catchy tunes – and her engaging voice is a welcome listen.
The best songs have Phair employ her idiosyncratic knack for writing emotionally honest lyrics that eschew pop cliches. The record opens with the strong “Spanish Doors”, which engages with Phair’s history with music – there are elements of ’90s alt-rock and grunge, but the chorus sways with a radio-friendly melody. “Soberish” is a similarly affectionate look at the sounds of Phair’s early music before she courted superstardom – it has a lean production, unfussy, and is a solid impression of Guyville-era Liz Phair.
Fellow Chicagoans will embrace the best song on Soberish, “Sheridan Road”, a gentle, loving poem to the Windy City. Channeling the kind of confessional singer-songwriter pop of Carole King or Carly Simon, Phair name-checks several points of Chicago trivia (driving down the titular Sheridan Road, getting on Lake Shore Drive, getting to the Loop past the Playboy Mansion) as she plays the folksy troubadour. The song is utterly charming with its wit and charm.
And though Phair doesn’t return to the dancier material of Funstyle, “In There” is a slinky, mid-tempo pop number with an engagingly smooth and glossy finish. The moody and rueful lyrics of a love that she knows isn’t right for her, but she cannot avoid. Like “Sheridan Road”, this song shines because of its mellow arrangement and instrumentation that supports the bruised lyrics. The genial “Ba Ba Ba” takes a similar tuneful and captivating radio-friendly approach and features some of her best vocals in her career – she’s a fantastic singer with a beguiling middle-range voice.
Though it took a very long time for Phair to return with an LP, it was more than worth the wait. It’s not the revelation of Exile in Guyville, but then again, few records are. Instead, it’s a moving collection of great songs that Phair invests with confidence and intellect.