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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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