It's the rare artist who, upon breaking new ground, chooses to stay there and wait for the prefab suburbs to sprout up around her. But Liz Phair is a rare artist, one who bulldozed right through the bedrock with her 1993 debut, "Exile in Guyville," reinventing the regular-girl-with-guitar genre with a potent mix of musical ingenuity and sexual bravado. Phair won over legions of giddy male fans with lines like "I want to be your blow-job queen," but it was mostly women who identified with the emotional scars she revealed just as explicitly: "You've never been a waste of my time/It's never been a drag," she droned sarcastically on "The Divorce Song," spitting out the words as if she were trying to expel a bitter aftertaste.
"It was like her mouth was moving, but my words were coming out," a friend recently said to me, describing how she felt when she first heard the songs on "Exile." Sure, plenty of pop stars have inspired imitators, but Liz Phair was possibly the first pop star to make women feel like she was impersonating them.
Still, it's one thing to get people's attention by inviting them to read your dirty mind; it's another thing entirely to keep their attention while you move onto the less titillating topics of marriage and babies. That's the challenge the 31-year-old wife and mother now faces with her third full-length album, "whitechocolatespaceegg," which has critics and fans wondering whether, musically, a less conflicted Liz Phair is a good thing.
Turns out it is -- much of the time, anyway. While "whitechocolatespaceegg" doesn't do much to contradict the theory that a well-adjusted artist is less interesting than a tortured one, at its best it's a fascinating portrait of an urban hipster opting for early retirement. Gone are the hairpin turns of phrase, point-blank punch lines and drop-dead delivery of "Exile" (and, to a lesser extent, of "Whip-Smart"); in their place are intentionally oblique lyrics and more conventional song structures that shift the focus onto Phair's more refined (and presumably more practiced) singing voice. But the best songs -- "Polyester Bride," "What Makes You Happy" and "Perfect World" among them -- still have that appealing spoken word/conversational air about them, as if you just walked in on her midstory and you can only imagine which delicious details you missed.
There are a few moments of heartbreaking poignancy as well. On "What Makes You Happy," a younger Phair is trying to convince her mother -- and herself -- of her new boyfriend's merits: "I'm sending you this photograph/I swear this one is gonna last/and all those other bastards were only practice." She goes on to describe how being in love feels like a "full recovery," but her desperate wail suggests her mother's doubts only mirror her own. It's a revealing moment, as it perfectly describes that pivotal phase when a young woman finally accepts the fact that no matter how immersed she is in a certain scene -- or, in Phair's case, how adept she's become at blowing spitballs at it -- her mother is still a bigger influence on her life than a thousand rock critics and self-appointed scene makers could ever be.
Phair's career has always been dominated by the critic-artist dynamic; she's gone from darling to punching bag and back again in the space of only two albums. Part of this backlash could be chalked up to the fact that critics were annoyed that Phair was never a particularly devoted artist, just a talented one. She never copped to a starving-artist myth of the Jewel/Mary Lou Lord variety; she never pretended she'd still be doing this if it meant living in a trailer; and once she got her Rolling Stone cover and a chance to give the finger to any of her foes, she acted as if she didn't care that much to begin with. On "whitechocolate," she even goes so far as to suggest that the whole integrity trip is a farce anyway: "It's nice to be liked, but it's better by far to get paid," she sings on "Shitloads of Money" -- and ironically it's one of the most sincere-sounding songs on the record.
At its worst, "whitechocolate" is simply underwhelming. But it's underwhelming in the same way that the Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee unauthorized home video was underwhelming: For all its promise of sexual prowess and raw footage, all you got was the missionary position and close-ups of the family dogs. But you kept watching -- not because you were hoping for something more, but because of how shockingly ordinary it all was.
What ultimately makes "whitechocolatespaceegg" compelling is not clever song craft or cunning lyrics, but the very adultlike air of acceptance that pervades the album. That doesn't mean Phair has forgotten about the more vulnerable times -- times when you can trick yourself into thinking that just one thing stands between you and a perfect life: "I wanna be cool, tall, vulnerable and luscious/I could have it all if I only had this much," she sings on "Perfect World," using every inch of her limited alto range. But for the first time Phair acknowledges that it's the mundane things that make a life real -- and that a real life is the only one worth working at: "Love is nothing like they say/You gotta pick up the little pieces every day." And if that means that she lets "Exile" stand as her best work, who can blame her?