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.