“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 release. 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 far-superior “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 trying to top Exile in Guyville, her lo-fi, critically-hailed response to the Stones’ 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 denounced the indie trail she helped blaze. Liz Phair is at once a natural continuation of the mature introspection of spaceegg (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, 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 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 (something she’s always excelled at), 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 of the Matrix almost bearable. 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.