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Wednesday, October 05, 2005
At the prompting of a certain editor, here's the "director's cut" of the Liz review.

Imagine, if you will, a room filled with the excesses of a teenager who has suddenly gotten more money than they could ever use. This room has video game machines, movie theater screens, a full bar, a deep fryer, huge in-wall speakers, and, hey, why not, a dirt bike track. One day this hypothetical teenager moves out, and before the middle-aged couple that's going to live there move in, they do a renovation. And so all the toys are removed and replaced with tasteful, solid wooden furniture, the carpet is torn up and tasteful oak floors are put down, and the disco balls are removed in favor of tasteful filigreed metal light fixtures. Where there was a bar there is now a divan; where there was a dirt-bike track there is now an exercise room.

As you can probably guess, Liz Phair's last album, which was self-titled and included production work from the Matrix, is the first room, and Liz Phair's new album, Somebody's Miracle, is the second room. And where the first room might as well be painted in a shade of Manic Panic nail polish called "POP," the second room uses a color of paint Martha Stewart has decided to call "Adult Contemporary."

Maybe the second room sounds better to you; that would certainly be fair. I'm not sure I'd want to live in a room with a dirt bike track, either. Thing is, though, this isn't a living situation we're discussing here, it's an album of music, and that's a whole different set of standards. Liz Phair gleamed and smiled, yelled and whispered, lost its breath and jumped before it looked, and it was an absolute blast, the funnest fun ever. Her new album walks calmly down a pedestrian mall, hands in pockets, talking in even tones about its day at the office, backed by unobtrusive production: tasteful slide guitar, chiming electric guitar, drums blending smoothly into the mix. There are few effects. None of the song titles include the word "cum."

This is not to say it's bad, or even wholly mediocre. There's nothing obviously awful here, and on a few tracks it even distinguishes itself, generally the ones that sound most like the Rolling Stones: "Can't Get Out of What I'm Into"'s guitars ape the horn-imitating riff on "Satisfaction," and "Why I Lie" sounds not unlike "Honky Tonk Women." But overall, while it's not horrible, there's also no real reason to listen to it.

I loved Liz Phair as a whole, loved it more, much more, than any of Phair's other albums, loved not only the Matrix's giddy radio-pop, but the propulsive pop-rock of the other tracks. Phair's gift had always been for lyrics, and on that album the music rose to the occasion, too. But on Miracle, numerous tracks are basically "Divorce Song" without interesting lyrics and structure, and that's not much at all.

Phair famously took a lot of flak for making a "sellout" pop album, partially from fans but mainly from critics, who were savage in their strangled j'acccuses, and as of press time, there's been no reevaluation, even though the album deserves it. When she sat down to make this new album, then, all she knew was that not only did she fail to have a hit album, but she also pissed off a large portion of her fanbase. (She may not have realized that she gained a whole new crop of fans, like me, or she might have decided that we're not worth it; either way, it didn't seem to enter into the picture.) And so she backed off from the teen-pop thing, to try and win back the newly-relevant indie nation, while simultaneously maintaining a pop sheen that allow her songs to sit comfortably next to Cheryl Crow's. (I'm not saying this was calculated; if anything, Miracle is closer in sound to her previous albums than Liz Phair, so this is presumably more her style. If anything, the self-titled album was calculated. But sometimes being calculating pays off artistically, too.) But Miracle is so boring, it's the classic case of trying to please everyone and actually pleasing no one.

Who to blame for this? I blame you. You, the cowardly, narrow-minded little shits that constitute the oxymoronically-named "listening public," who heard Liz Phair and turned up your noses, who saw the half-naked press photos and exclaimed, "How can she do such things, when she has (gasp, faint) a child to think of?" Well, now she's made an album that won't embarrass anyone, and guess what? It's as interesting as baby food. Liz Phair was a masterpiece, and we could have had another one. Instead we got, well, Somebody's Miracle, and what do you really need to say about that besides the title?

It seems antithetical to the dictates of art to ask someone to make music that isn't disreputable, that won't bring shame upon their family, but that's what we asked for, and Liz delivered. So keep it up, kids, keep raising your voice in indignation when an artist ventures outside your tiny circle of acceptability; keep it up, and we'll get more shit like Somebody's Miracle, like Funeral, Picaresque, I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, You Forgot It In People, Paw Tracks, more boring, boring, boring music. Don't change a goddamn thing. Things are going great.