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Liz Phair’s “Soberish” is a Liberating Return to Form

Liz Phair is nothing if not a polarizing figure. In 1994, she smashed barriers and directly challenged what was acceptable for women to sing about with her critically lauded and sexually-liberated debut album, Exile in Guyville. Unfortunately, that album would go on to hang over her head like the Sword of Damocles throughout the course of her career. Her follow-up records, Whip-Smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg were still critically-revered, but not as well-received as her debut. And when she released her eponymous fourth album in 2003 and a follow-up record, Funstyle in 2010, she was demolished by critics for embracing a more accessible pop sound.

Now, after an 11-year hiatus and a frenetic reissuing of demo tapes, the pioneering queen of alternative Gen X folk rock is back to reclaim her crown. The first single off the album, “Good Side,” leaves a memorable and lasting impression on the listener. While one could assume that the lyrics depict Phair reflecting on a relationship gone sour, any listener familiar with the trajectory of Liz Phair’s career could easily draw a parallel between the lyrics and her complicated legacy (“Done plenty more wrong than I ever did right/Still I’m not a criminal”).

“I think there’s a sense of counterbalancing the weight of my memoir being concerned with the darkness and haunting aspects of the past. “Good Side” captures the optimism and acceptance I feel even in the face of disappointments,” Phair revealed in an interview with Stereogum.

From the hypnotic “Spanish Doors” to the pulsing synths and zany guitar strokes on the bridge of “Ba Ba Ba” to the creeping electric piano groove of “Soul Sucker” to the percussive handclaps on “In There,” and “Hey Lou”—her playful tribute to Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson—there are several glorious highlights on this record where Phair packs absolutely no punches.

However, there are also certain points on the record where the songwriting flatlines a bit. The title track is lyrically bland at best, and I can’t say that the instrumentally one-note “Lonely Street” will be getting any replays from me. But Soberish remains a solid release.

And if the album sounds at all like it’s clashing with itself or that Phair might have trouble picking a lane, that’s kind of the point. Soberish seems to embody every image that Liz Phair has adopted throughout her evolving career, as well as everything she excels at; the exceptional song-crafting, the poignant lyrical self-reflection, the cathartic rage, the irreverence, and the razor-sharp wit that made both fans and critics alike fall in love with her in 1994.

It must also be noted that now that it’s more acceptable for certain genres to cross-pollinate, Phair is also now able to write the excellent sugary pop melodies that once got her mercilessly bashed by critics. Soberish may not be a perfect album, but it’s still something exciting and something new. And there’s certainly no disputing the fact that any day Liz Phair puts out something new is a good day.

Favorite tracks: Hey Lou, Ba Ba Ba, Good Side, Soul Sucker, Bad Kitty

Least Favorite Tracks: Soberish, Dosage, Lonely Street

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Music

Here’s Why Pitchfork Gave Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” a 10/10

I will never forget the first time I heard Fiona Apple’s soul-crushing voice ringing through the speakers in my childhood bedroom. I had just finished my freshman year of college and was beginning to undergo the growing pains of transitioning into adulthood, and the only escape I found was through music. One night I was lounging on my bed, and combing through Spotify after I had completely worn out Tori Amos’s entire collection of songs. The first song to pop up on the app’s radio algorithm was Fiona Apple’s “Shadowboxer,” and I was utterly awestruck. I couldn’t believe that a seventeen-year-old was singing like that.

The minute I returned to New York for school I downloaded her entire catalogue (“Tidal,” “When the Pawn,” “Extroardinary Machine,” and “The Idler Wheel…”) and binge-watched all of her live performances, including that iconic MTV Unplugged session from 1997. For four months straight she was all I listened to. I played her on a loop as I walked from Cooper Square up to 2nd Avenue, on my subway commutes, sang along to “Daredevil” while I was in the shower and even as I fried up plastic bags of frozen potstickers from Trader Joe’s in my old dorm room.

But what drew me to her even more was the fact that she’s always been more reserved and withdrawn than most artists. She isn’t on any social media platforms and she rarely tours, aside from an occasional pop-up show or festival. She doesn’t do press or interviews unless the journalist has earned her trust and is willing to go about it the right way, as can be seen in Emily Nussbaum’s recent profile of the singer in The New York Times. What Fiona Apple has to offer is incredibly rare in today’s media landscape where all that seems to matter is attention and clicks. She doesn’t care about album sales, rollouts, or cranking out new music as fast as possible. Instead she allows her talent to speak for itself.

The record is an amalgamation of ballads, spoken word patterns, rapping, and vocal contortions and incantations that have garnered comparisons to Yoko Ono. The only ingredients to Apple’s minimalist approach to the album were a piano, her powerhouse vocals, and percussion that came from tapping on a box of the bones of her dead dog, Janet. It is an incredibly multi-faceted body of work and nothing else sounds quite like it.

On the track “Relay,” Apple addresses the toxicity of online culture and the constant need for attention. On the track she sings “I resent you for presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure,” a line she claims is directed at influencers. “The reason I don’t get into [social media] is because I can see what’s happening: Everybody’s comparing themselves to everybody else. It’s really a terrible way to live,” the singer told Vulture.

The album’s title track finds Apple addressing many of the hardships that come second-nature to being a woman in the entertainment industry where women are often boxed in and treated as disposable objects, complete with a nod to Kate Bush (“I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill/Shoes that were not made for running up that hill”). The song also finds Apple taking the trapped-in-a-box metaphor literally, painting a picture of herself between walls she wants to carve her way out of (“Fetch the bolt cutters/I’ve been in here too long”).

“Ladies” is an emotionally-wrought refusal to allow men to pit women against one another and the power of communal support between women who bond over past relationship trauma (“When he leaves me, please be my guest/To whatever I might’ve left in his kitchen cupboards/In the back of his bathroom cabinets”). Apple explained to Vulture that a point she wanted to get across is that infidelity is never an excuse to hate the other party involved. “Later on in life, I’m with a guy,” she explains. “I found out he’s seeing some other woman. I meet that other woman — I’m nice to that other woman. She didn’t do it. She didn’t cheat on me.”

“Heavy Balloon” touches on her coming back into her body and eventually retrieving her spirit that keeps leaving her whenever she is caught in the throes of depression, using plants as a metaphor for her return to earth (“I spread like strawberries/I climb like peas and beans/I’ve been sucking it in so long/That I’m bursting at the seams”). “[Those lyrics about plants] reminded me of the Three Sisters [Gardens], and how we need to be in kinship and sisterhood with one another in order to build the communities that we want to see,” Indigenous activist and leader of Seeding Sovereignty, Eryn Wise, stated in conversation with Apple and Democracy Now.

On “For Her” Apple tackles machismo, sexual assault, and toxic masculinity (“Well good morning/You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in”), which she claims was inspired by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in the fall of 2018. On “Under the Table,” she defiantly chants, “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up.” It is a rallying cry for any young girl who refuses to be silenced, willing to face the consequences of speaking up and disregarding authority.

This is Fiona Apple at her most vulnerable, liberated and triumphant. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is the public manifesto of a woman who freed herself from the shackles of public scrutiny a long time ago and refuses to let anybody else dictate her path forward other than herself.