It’s been 28 years since the release of Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair’s debut studio album that crowned her a ’90s feminist icon. Filled with sarcasm, jagged melodies and sexually explicit lyrics that challenged female stereotypes, the outspoken tracks of Exile in Guyville began a do-it-yourself rawness that extended throughout Phair’s earlier albums. Even when she dove into the world of glossy radio hits with “Why Can’t I?,” released in 2003, Phair made room for her forthright attitude — but her later albums drifted a little too far. After years of toying with her sound, Soberish, released June 4, comes as a refreshing return to the more seminal sounds of Liz Phair.
Having reunited with Brad Wood, the producer of Phair’s first three studio albums, it’s no wonder that Soberish is more reminiscent of her original roots. However, it doesn’t ride on the same acclaimed glittery grit of years past; she’s simply drawing on its elements in order to forge a sound that fits her present. With a mature perspective from experiencing hookups, divorce, motherhood and almost 30 years of trying to give women more voice in a male-dominated industry, Phair continues to do what she does best: unleashing her deep-rooted truth.
Soberish immediately opens up with Phair’s offbeat vocal melody in “Spanish Doors.” Inspired by her friend’s divorce, she sings about the loss of identity that must be faced when big life changes are made. Backed by a bright electric guitar, somber lyrics are forced into a cheery setting, mirroring how inner emotions are often masked by a happy outer shell. Even the poppy chorus deludes the listener into singing along to “The ghost I see in the mirror doesn’t smile anymore” with a relaxed expression.
Phair may be older and wiser, but her younger flair for direct sexual allusions is very much a part of her present self. The stripped-down and upbeat “Bad Kitty” is one of the more blatantly sexual songs on the album. The Phair frankness is apparent as the song opens with “My pussy is a big dumb cat.” She even extends the overt animals-as-genitals metaphor through the second verse as she sings, “I go out and play with my big black dog.”
At first, the not-so-subtle sexual theme comes off as Phair being unable to let go of her past edgy self, but the repeated bridge saves her from this unsavory depiction. Despite turning to the harsh realities of no longer being young and seemingly indestructible, Phair ultimately seems to be happy with her life: “No back up, no cigarettes, baby, and no regrets.” It’s no “Fuck and Run,” but “Bad Kitty” serves as a perky reminder that age shouldn’t be a barrier to setting up a pet play date.
Honesty resonates throughout the entirety of the album, but at 54 years old, Phair no longer has to dig so deep. With a more relaxed outlook, honesty looks like taking “Soberish” shots in a bar before meeting up with a lover or keeping it positive with her “Good Side.” It’s good to see that Phair is able to revisit the past with wisdom and clarity.
Although Soberish demonstrates growth in Phair’s career and identity, Phair is still finding the balance of synth and effects. One of her more solemn tracks, “In There,” features an oscillating synth and artificial drum track, but by the second chorus, the rawness in Phair’s voice is hollowed out and muddled over by echoey harmonies. Phair eventually finds a home for atmospheric synth and layered background vocals in “Soul Sucker,” a song perfect for haunting modern-day controlling killjoys.
It’s too much to ask artists such as Phair to remake albums of their glory days, limiting them from growing into themselves. Instead, Soberish offers the coolheaded outlook of a woman who has experienced it all. It isn’t the classic Liz Phair of the ’90s, but it showcases Phair’s bravery for being able to leave behind her celebrated past in favor of an unapologetically updated sense of self.