When Liz Phair tried to go full-on pop with her 2003 self-titled album, working with Avril Lavigne’s songwriting team and posing in Xbox magazine ads, the indie universe predictably reacted with absolute abject horror. Today, the album plays as a piece of top-shelf MOR pop music; it’s a whole hell of a lot better than anyone was willing to give it credit for being at the time. But I always thought it was weird, in interviews, that Phair was defending herself by saying she never considered herself an indie rocker, that she’d always wanted to make pop music. If she came across as being slightly disingenuous there, it’s only because those two things didn’t need to be mutually exclusive. Phair had already been making indie rock that fizzed and bubbled and charged like pop music. She’d already been writing the sorts of melodies that you wish you could breathe in and make a part of your body chemistry. Exile In Guyville, Phair’s 1993 debut, got attention for its audacious lyrics, but it’s a road-trip classic because of those impossible-to-shake hooks. And if Whip-Smart, the album she released a year later, didn’t shake the earth quite like Exile did, it has a few moments that pop harder than anything else she ever ended up recording.
Consider, for example, the dizzily souped-up first single “Supernova,” one of the finest crunch-pop songs that found its way into alt-rock radio rotation during the ’90s. It’s a song about the moment when you first fall for someone, when everything that person does seems like the coolest thing anyone could ever do. The lyrics are giddy declarations of lust: “Your kisses are as wicked as an M16 / And you fuck like a volcano, and you’re everything to me.” The guitars buck and rip and vroom. Phair’s voice finally leaves behind its half-dead flatness, shedding it like armor. If you’ve never sung along to “Supernova” while locking eyes with a significant other, I feel sorry for you and your sad-ass love life. “Supernova” showed that Phair, at her poppiest, could swing with Elastica and Matthew Sweet and everything else in that mid-’90s power-pop wave. But “Supernova” is also a weird song, full of goony synthetic sound-effects and screaming multi-tracked vocals and layer upon layer of effects-pedal distortion. It has Phair comparing a man’s lips to “a cherub’s bare wet ass.” The song stands as proof, if we needed it, that Phair did not need to leave behind any of her personality, or her music’s personality, to work as pop.
Whip-Smart has an arc to it, just like Exile did: Phair meets a guy, falls in love, starts a relationship, drifts apart, breaks up. The opening one-two of “Chopsticks” into “Supernova,” in which a bored fuck suddenly becomes explosive love, speaks to that arc. But Whip-Smart, unlike Exile, doesn’t feel like a colossal statement of intent. It doesn’t scream its own importance upon impact. Instead, it works as a collection of very good songs, nothing more and nothing less. And if the album wasn’t determined to make a seismic impact, it did show Phair’s writing getting more direct, her hooks sharper and more immediate. The title track swipes the playground chant cadences of Malcolm McLaren’s “Double Dutch” and turns them into pure sugar-rush. “Cinco De Mayo” is all craftily chunky garage-rock riffage. “Jealousy” seethes and spits and then explodes into catharsis, digging deep into the nastiest relationship problem that nobody talks about: “I can’t believe you had a life before me.” The album-ending “May Queen” is one of the bitterest but sweetest-sounding kiss-offs ever pressed to wax. There’s not a bad song in the bunch. And maybe Whip-Smart never had much of a legacy beyond “a bunch of good songs.” I can’t, for instance, name an artist who was audibly Whip-Smart-influenced, and it didn’t really change the way the world thought about Phair. But “a bunch of good songs” is still a pretty great legacy, especially when the songs are as good as the ones here.
I don’t know if this is ’90s-nostalgia nonsense, but I’ve come to think of that amazing three-album Liz Phair run as the rough musical equivalent to Richard Linklater’s first three movies, which are about as incredible a run as any director has ever had. Exile In Guyville, then, is Slacker: The announcement of a major out-of-nowhere talent, one who doesn’t give a fuck about the rule book and tells the stories nobody else is telling. Whip-Smart is Dazed & Confused: The dizzily fun leap into the center, and the proof that this young genius could make something that vaguely resembles mainstream entertainment. And the deeply underrated Whitechocolatespaceegg is Before Sunset: A move that seemed puzzlingly soft and sentimental at the time, but which is also heart-bustingly beautiful and romantic, the one that has aged better than anyone thought possible. The whole analogy is messy and inexact as all hell; the craftsmanship on Exile In Guyville, for instance, is way beyond the slapdash amateurism of Slacker. But I think it sort of works anyway: These wooly, uncompromising, imprecise wonder kids who captured the critical imagination around the same time. Unfortunately, the analogy stops working somewhere around there. Phair was trying to make a School Of Rock with that self-titled album, but at least in terms of its reception, she ended up with the Bad News Bears remake instead. But maybe Phair still has a Boyhood in her? We can hope. Let’s watch some videos.