I fell in love with Liz Phair in January 1995. It was a year and a half after the release of her debut album Exile in Guyville, but until a friend lent me the album I hadn’t had much interest in listening to it. Phair had received scant attention in the British music press (which I still took very seriously in those days, being a devoted reader of NME and Select), and what little attention she did get left me with the impression she was some sort of crappy poor-woman’s-PJ-Harvey. Also, she had what I considered to be “an annoying face”.
So, yeah, I didn’t really care about Liz Phair. When my friend gave me the album, he warned me that it was a genuine grower and that it would take a few listens for me to really get into it. He was right. I listened once, and wasn’t really impressed. The music seemed boring, and Phair’s deadpan delivery didn’t impress me. But I persevered, putting the album on in the morning while making my breakfast. And as my friend had predicted, the album grew on me. After a few days of casual morning listens, it suddenly struck me that ’6’1″‘ was one of the best songs I’d ever heard. There was no going back.
Maybe it was because Exile came along at the perfect time in my life. It became the soundtrack of my melodramatic, angsty yet incredibly fun second year in college. In almost every song, from ‘Divorce Song’ to ‘Flower’ to ‘Fuck and Run’ to ’6’1″‘, Phair’s lyrics summed up all the drama and romantic messiness of my 19 year old life. It was harder to be friends than lovers, and you shouldn’t try to mix the two! All the bridges I’d blown away did keep floating up! I did want to feel like I was standing 6’1″ instead of (my actual height, conveniently) 5’2″! And yeah, when I saw the faces of certain boys…well, you know the rest.
Musically, Exile is brilliantly lo-fi – mostly it’s just Phair and her raggedy electric guitar. She uses an electric where most singer-songwriters would use an acoustic, and this arrangement is the perfect setting for her stark vocals. She’s sometimes joined by drums and bass, sometimes just drums, sometimes keyboards, and the result is startlingly immediate and raw. Which is probably why so many women of a certain age (ie mine) feel such a strong connection to this album. Maybe Phair’s not being honest when she sings so frankly about unabashed sexual desire, about being friends with your ex, about fucking and running, about asserting yourself, about stupid boys, about wanting a boyfriend for “all that cheesy old shit, letters and sodas”. But it sure feels like she is.
Liz Phair never made anything as good as this album again. Whip Smartwas pretty good, and even whitechocolatespaceegg had its moments. Then came the cheesy collaborations with Avril Lavigne’s songwriters the Matrix and the depressing metamorphosis into a sort of Sheryl Crow who sings about sperm. And yet there’s hope – a few years ago, unreleased songs from the original sessions for her funderwhelming self-titled 2003 album made their way online, and they were amazing. Sadly, her follow-up album Somebody’s Miracle was more cheese. But whatever Ms Phair does next, we’ll always have Exile in Guyville. I still know all the words to every song. And it still makes me feel tall.
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of its release, Exile in Guyville is being rereleased on August 25th with extra tracks and – yay!- a documentary. So if you’ve never heard it before, now’s your chance.