“I’ve got to keep it exciting, make it attractive, keep it alive,” Liz Phair sings on “Good Love Never Dies,” the final track on her self-titled fourth album. Sure, she may be talking about a dissolving relationship—one that pops up frequently throughout the album (“Friend of Mine” is a catchier, more palatable cousin of “The Divorce Song”)—but Phair could very well be speaking about her waning career. Since her debut a decade ago, the indie rock princess has been tasked with topping Exile in Guyville, her lo-fi, critically hailed response to the Rolling Stones’s Exile on Main Street: 1995’s Whip-Smart was the slicked-up, destined-to-disappoint follow-up while the vastly underrated whitechocolatespaceegg showed she was all grown-up.
Now, after a five-year absence, Phair has given up her crown and apparently denounced the indie trail she helped blaze. Liz Phair is at once a natural continuation of the mature introspection of whitechocolatespaceegg (the touching, Michael Penn-produced “Little Digger” finds Phair’s son meeting her new lover for the first time) and an unabashed vie for mainstream pop success (four tracks were helmed by the Matrix, made famous for their work with Avril Lavigne, who, not coincidentally, owes much to Phair’s former brand of female angst-rock).
Of course, Phair is still a vixen, waxing not-so-poetic on the perks and pleasures—not to mention, holistic skincare—of oral sex on “H.W.C.” (“Gimme your hot white cum,” goes the quaint chorus), but it’s sans the edge that made Exile in Guyville‘s legendary “Flower” so damn precarious. Still, the former blow-job-queen comes through, confusing lust for love on “It’s Sweet” and flexing her newly single female muscle on “Bionic Eyes”: “I can’t feel anymore/But I can fake it forever.” Amid her career crisis, Phair remains frank and funny, courting an oblivious boy nine years her junior on “Rock Me,” all the while poking fun at her own indie-rock cred: “Your record collection doesn’t exist/You don’t even know who Liz Phair is.”
It’s this kind of self-referential self-deprecation that renders the pop fluff production by the Matrix not just bearable, but fascinating. Guyville purists have scoffed that Liz Phair‘s mainstream accessibility will alienate the singer’s hardcore fans, but 10 years on, it’s not likely there are many left. Phair, like the rest of us, has always seemed to marvel at her debut from afar, admiring her own genius and recognizing that there’s no career to be had trying to top perfection.