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Rock n' roll in the 1990s graced us with a number of masterpieces, many of which were followed by lengthy silences from their creators; a recent Slate piece on Neutral Milk Hotel's The Aeroplane Over the Sea compared Jeff Mangum's withdrawal from the public eye to J.D. Salinger's, and the anticipation of the reunited My Bloody Valentine has gradually morphed from excitement into something resembling dread among fans and critics alike. Both Aeroplane and Loveless strike first-time listeners as immediately powerful, inventive works of genius, but it was arguably the quiet that followed that cemented their mythos and status as classics.
Then there's Exile in Guyville, whose status among the greats seems to slip a little each year. In its 1999 edition of the top albums of the '90s, Pitchfork placed Guyville at #5. In the revamped 2003 version, presumably compiled to correct the first draft's lack of hip-hop and to include some more provocatively hipper choices like Talk Talk, Guyville slipped to #30. It seems like Guyville has dipped a little in other retrospective lists as well (including those by Rolling Stone). You rarely hear the album spoken about in the same hyperbole that's reserved for oddball Beach Boys albums from the '70s, or with the same hushed reverence we reserve for weirdos like Mangum or tragic cases like Ian Curtis who, like Liz Phair, seem to have had only one or two great albums in 'em. Such gradual depreciation of Guyville is no doubt related to Phair's increasingly inane output since, characterizing Guyville's brilliance more and more as a phenomenal fluke.
And it is such a brilliant album—more brilliant, I would argue, than the Rolling Stones masterpiece to which it supposedly engages in a song-by-song response, more brilliant than any of the other angry-young-woman albums by PJ Harvey and Tori Amos that energized the early '90s. It was the album that had the phrase "blowjob queen" on it and the singer's nipple on the cover, but it was so much more. It's a passionate work with an incredible emotional breadth: "Divorce Song" is worthy of Updike, "Flower" of Genet, "Canary" of Anais Nin. Her recent sub-hits like "Polyester Bride" and "Why Can't I?" are nice enough, but nice enough isn't good enough.
The lyrics are the focal point of reviews like this, since it's easy to gush over lines like "They play me like a pitbull in a basement" and grimace over ones like "I'll fuck you 'till your dick is blue," but it's the songs themselves and, more importantly, their arrangements that inspired the imitators. Most of Guyville's 18 songs feature just voice, guitar and drums, and many songs drop the drums from the mix entirely: It was the album where the intimacy of folk music and the crassness of punk and indie coalesced most perfectly. That there is not a single dud on the album is also impossible to dismiss (even Nevermind has that awful moment where Krist Novoselic screeches the chorus of "Get Together" into a guitar pickup).
And now Guyville is 15 years old, and no one really knows what to say about it other than to skirt the fact that Phair's been trying to sound like Avril Lavigne lately, or to whip out some remembrances of the first time we heard it, as though we're at a wake instead of listening to one of the best records ever recorded (the new ATO deluxe reissue includes a whole DVD's worth of such eulogies from folks like Ira Glass and John Cusack). A recent piece on Salon's feminist blog Broadsheet declared Guyville "The Album That Made Me a Feminist," which is a little like saying Schindler's List inspired me to donate 20 bucks to the Shoah Foundation. But Guyville is pretty damn inspiring—artistically, personally and, what the hell, politically—and it's kind of sad the way we don't think of it more often in the present tense.
If Exile in Guyville is shockingly assured and fully formed for a debut album, there are a number of reasons why. Most prominent of these is that many of the songs were initially essayed on Liz Phair's homemade cassette Girlysound, which means that the songs are essentially the cream of the crop from an exceptionally talented songwriter. Second, there's its structure, infamously patterned after the Stones' Exile on Main St., but not the song-by-song response Phair promoted it as. (Just try to match the albums up: is the "blow-job queen" fantasy of "Flower" really the answer to the painful elegy "Let It Loose"?) Then, most notably, there's Phair and producer Brad Wood's deft studio skills, bringing a variety of textures and moods to a basic, lo-fi production. There is as much hard rock as there are eerie solo piano pieces, and there's everything in between from unadulterated power pop, winking art rock, folk songs, and classic indie rock. Then, there are Phair's songs themselves. At the time, her gleefully profane, clever lyrics received endless attention (there's nothing that rock critics love more than a girl who plays into their geek fantasies, even — or maybe especially — if she's mocking them), but years later, what still astounds is the depth of the writing, how her music matches her clear-eyed, vivid words, whether it's on the self-loathing "Fuck and Run," the evocative mood piece "Stratford-on-Guy," or the swaggering breakup anthem "6'1"," or how she nails the dissolution of a long-term relationship on "The Divorce Song." Each of these 18 songs maintains this high level of quality, showcasing a singer/songwriter of immense imagination, musically and lyrically. If she never equaled this record, well, few could.
5 Stars & AMG Album Pick
Ten years before the blog boom, Phair practiced oversharing as performance art — to create a virtually perfect debut. Released in 1993, and billed as a song-by-song response to the Stones' Exile on Main Street, Exile in Guyville was a peep show of sexual and emotional bravado, conducted over scrappy rock riffs. A 26-year-old indie babe who dropped bons mots like "I want to be your blow-job queen" (see "Flower"), Phair commanded attention, though much of it came from clueless dudes who just wanted the sex talk without the complicated emotions Phair brought to it. Yet 15 years later, her debut still sounds as brazen and heartbroken as ever. When she sings, "I want a boyfriend," on "Fuck and Run" — a cotton-mouthed half-apology over brittle rhythm guitar and muted drums — she nails the struggle between dependence and independence at the heart of romance.
Phair's glossier subsequent releases increasingly snubbed the indie-rock world, which never really forgave her. So along with three bonus tracks from the pre-Guyville demos collection Girly Sounds (check out the dub-reggae lark "Say You"), this reissue includes a 60-minute, Phair-directed documentary about Guyville that's a group-therapy session with peers and fans. Phair even hugs it out with Urge Overkill's Nash Kato after confessing that Guyville was written largely about him. A must-see for alt-rock obsessives, the film dissects a record whose rawness remains as compelling for guys as for women. As Phair's Windy City pal John Cusack notes, "A man could listen to you revile him for hours."
Artist/Band: Liz Phair
Album: Exile In Guyville - Remastered
Release Date: 1993, Re-issued 2008
Genre: Rock, Indie Rock
Bitrate: VBR --alt-preset extreme