Liz Phair - Exile In Guyville

The past decade of Liz Phair has been a bit weird and awkward. There were the two flawed but intriguing major-label albums, failed crossover bids both, which led to the music press treating Phair like she’d spiked the Bowery Ballroom kegs with ricin. There were all the interviews about how she was never indie to begin with, how she always wanted to make pop music. There was the confounding industry-targeted internet album Funstyle, the one with the rapping and the Bollywood samples. There have been all the gigs writing background music for random-ass TV shows like Swingtown and In Plain Sight. It’s been a messy time, and I think the messiness of that time — on top of the haterism that greeted Phair when her instant press-darling status propelled her beyond the rest of the Chicago underground — has somehow obscured the greatness of her initial run. Because Phair’s first three albums — Exile In Guyville, Whip-Smart, Whitechocolatespaceegg — is total legend status, something I’d hold up against any three-album run from anyone in history. And Guyville, the debut album that turns 20 tomorrow, was the best of the bunch, and maybe the greatest work of traditional American indie rock that anyone has ever made. It’s also probably the best road-trip album of its generation and the signal of a rare talent’s arrival. It deserves to be celebrated. Let’s do that.

Writing about Guyville is hard because the writing on the album is so intimidatingly great. Phair was capable of the sorts of turns of phrase we might expect from a master of the short-story form, not from a rock singer: “The earth looked like it was lit from within, like a poorly assembled electrical ball,” “They play me like a pitbull in a basement,” “I just want your fresh young jimmy jamming, slamming, ramming in me.” That last line comes from “Flower,” a fevered fuck-dream of a song that got more than its share of press attention when Guyville came out, if only because nobody was used to hearing women say things like “blowjob queen” out loud. The album’s treatment of sex, and of the feelings of confusion and alienation and approval-need that sometimes come with it, is a whole lot more complicated that that initial “Flower” listen might have you believe. “I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas,” Phair sighed on “Fuck And Run,” before allowing, “I didn’t think this would happen again.”

The muses of Exile In Guyville are the assorted greasy no-hopers that Phair met around Wicker Park back when medallion-rock trio Urge Overkill were running shit locally. (UO frontman Nash Kato might be one of the record’s muses, and he showed up looking extra-haggard in the DVD documentary that came with the Guyville 15th-anniversary reissue. I’m scared to Google image search what he looks like now.) And the album captures a certain early-’20s hedonistic exhaustion, the moment you feel trapped by your young-person freedom and your complete inability to decipher what the fuck is going on with every other early-’20s idiot around you. There are moments of deeper perspective, too, like “Divorce Song,” where Phair digs deep into the bitter spite of two people who have loved each other for maybe a few days too long. But the real meat of the album is in the way it evokes overflowing ashtrays and dirty floors and landscape rushing by plane windows — all those hallmarks of those lost years. An album like Waxahatchee’s Cerulean Salt exists in the same milieu and probably takes some inspiration from Guyville, but Guyville’s greatest legacy, as an influencer, might be in something like Lena Dunham’s Girls. If Guyville came out today, it might not be an album. It might be an HBO show.

But that would be a shame, since the music on Guyville is amazing. One thing about those lyrics I quoted above: They always fit seamlessly within the fabric of the song, acting as tiny little hooks unto themselves. The Phair of Guyville sang with a deadpan mutter that marked her as straight-up early-’90s indie; her voice wasn’t all that different from that of Kim Gordon, say, or Stephen Malkmus. But there was a classic-rock swagger in there, too, a knowing shimmy that the doofs in Urge Overkill could only hint at. Nearly a decade later, when Phair showed up singing backup on Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up The Sun,” it wasn’t that much of a shock, since Phair and Crow had a similar bluesy ease with lived-in, tossed-off tough-chick jukebox melodies. Phair also co-produced the album with Brad Wood, and 20 years later, I’m still picking out subtle and smart decisions that both of them made: The sleigh bells on the second half of “Fuck And Run,” the quiet harmonica honks on “Divorce Song,” the total lack of drums on “Gunshy.” Part of the origin myth of Guyville is that Phair was this untrained, untested naif of a songwriter, someone who wasn’t sure where to put the choruses or how to stack chords together. Apparently, major labels were trying to sign her, but also trying to get her to rewrite and re-record all the songs on it. This seems wrong to me. The songs on Guyville might have idiosyncratic structures, but the songwriting and production decisions all seem very deliberate and thought-out. You can’t possibly get songs like this by accident.

And there was a great audacity to the album, too: An unknown songwriter calling Matador and asking the label to sign her, then giving them a massive 18-song double-LP as her first offering, something that just absolutely wasn’t done back in the day. Phair famously said in interviews that Guyville is a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, though the songs don’t line up and nobody’s ever been able to pinpoint how, exactly, she’s answering that record. But really, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that she made an album that absolutely stacks up against that other Exile — eclipses it, really, to my mind. Today, Guyville stands as one of those rare moments when indie rock gets it totally and completely right. The things that are orthodox indie about Guyville — its digressive recording techniques and oblique lyrical ideas and tendency to nod at great moments in rock history without mining them for ideas — only help buttress songs that would’ve been plenty sharp without them. And if you haven’t played Guyville in a while, you owe it to yourself.

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Comments (14)
  1. People don’t talk enough about how fucking AMAZING this album is in every aspect. I find it really difficult to put into words how good Guyville is, and how much it means to me personally.
    ‘Shatter’ is one of my top 5 favourite songs of all time.

    • I absolutely agree. I always thought of this album as like a female version of Pavement or GBV. 90′s indie songs that are very sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek but somehow those are some of the greatest songs ever written.
      My favorites are Flower and Divorce Song

    • Absolutely, a perfect record, and oddly enough a tough way to start a career since it’s nearly impossible to follow it up.

      Another thing that people don’t talk enough about is how awesome her guitar chops are on this record. There are like 10 unmistakeable, original riffs. It’s hard to think of another debut album that has so many.

    • On another note my best friend hates this album and refers to it as ‘Menstrual Rage: The Musical!’ so there’s that.

  2. Yeah, she’s hot.

  3. Well shit, I was already listening to Exile in Guyville when I saw this and noted the anniversary.

  4. Here, here.

  5. Liz Phair is an amazing songwriter and (in my opinion) an even more amazing guitarist. “Whip-Smart” is one of the most original albums I own. It’s like a mini-movie, in a way.

  6. definitely an album you can throw on anytime and enjoy it. I was always turned off by he cover art but the album is so well crafted and her vocals and songwritting are top notch. 6″1, Help Me Mary, and Shatter are my personal favorites but this is just one of those 5 star albums where there are really great moments and not a single bad one.

  7. I’m with you for the most part on this. Guyville is truly incredible, especially for a debut album. But I don’t really agree with your comparison of Phair’s vocals with Gordon or Malkmus. She may sing sometimes like she just woke up, but unlike those two, she sings in tune/on key (on purpose); those two often sing out of tune (Gordon doing the more punk thing) on purpose. (And it works for everybody.) Plus, there are vocal harmonies on Guyville (ex. “Never Said”) you’d never find on Sonic Youth or Pavement records. That said, this and Whip Smart are my go-to Phair CDs (or cassette tapes – yes, I bought the latter on tape and still have it but should probably upgrade to vinyl for that, Guyville or both when I can afford to.).

    • // there are vocal harmonies on Guyville (ex. “Never Said”) you’d never find on Sonic Youth or Pavement records//

      You’re forgetting the “sha-la-la-la-la”s on “Trigger Cut”.

  8. There may be Pavement songs with vocal harmonies that I’ve forgotten about that one isn’t it, sorry – it’s just Malkmus singing falsetto-style there (in singular notes).

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