One for Friday: Liz Phair, “What Makes You Happy”

I have a somewhat idiosyncratic opinion about the peak of Liz Phair’s music career. I’m fairly certain the consensus remains locked into amber that Phair’s very best album is her attention-getting debut, Exile in Guyville, which famously topped the influential Village Voice year-end music poll when it was originally released. I like that record fine, but I felt it got a disproportionate amount of attention just because of the raw language Phair used freely across the songs, a facet of the record she later admitted was a blatant tactic to to stir up attention. I knew plenty of women who could sling salty talk with the best of them so they whole “Oh my, it’s a girl swearing!” thing didn’t do much for me. If anything, it may have inspired a bit of disgruntlement since there was so much of the album that I couldn’t legally play on the radio.

I was ultimately more impressed a couple albums later, after Phair had seemingly moved on from needy provocation to instead simply worry about writing song. Seemingly secure with her place in music industry–not a skyrocketing star, but without much doubt over whether she’d find a label to finance her efforts, either–Phair concentrated on the art of true songcraft. Whitechocolatespaceegg was the result. To my ears, it was, and is, her sharpest collection of songs, combining some of the brash insolence of her earlier efforts with a world-weary wisdom and a gloriously disaffected sense of humor. It may have been just another pose, but it felt like Phair was fully opening up for the first time. The album seemed to be in her own voice in a way her prior two efforts weren’t quite, and I found it immensely appealing. To hell with the Village Voice; this is the album that deserved a “Best of the Year” designation.

I’m not that much of a contrarian when it comes to Phair. Like just about everyone else, I gave up on the Chicago singer-songwriter with the release of her shockingly bad self-titled effort in 2003. It didn’t feel like a full-fledged betrayal to me, as it did for some fans. For me, she wasn’t obligated to keep recreating that first album. I was happy to see her evolve and change, and I even felt that doing was the best option she had as an artist and a performer. Just because I didn’t like the direction she struck out in didn’t mean she was some sort of indie rock heretic for doing so. I still had the older efforts to appreciation, after all. I simply didn’t have to reach back as far as most.

Liz Phair, “What Makes You Happy”

(Disclaimer: It looks to me like whitechocolatespaceegg is out of print in the United States, though Amazon claims to have it available as a pricey import. As I type this, that version’s not in stock either, so it may very be that the only way to truly but it new is through a digital download, which, of course, does the proprietor of your favorite local, independently-owned record store no good whatsoever. According to reliable reports, Phair might not get too many of your pennies transferred over to her either. Despite my mild criticisms, Exile in Guyville is definitely worth picking up and can easily be acquired from that previously mentioned shop. It’s still enough of a touchstone album that they may even have it readily available on the shelves. Today’s song is posted here with the understanding that it can’t be easily bought in a record store. Still, if someone who holds a claim on the song doesn’t like it being here, a little nudge is all it will take to get me to remove it. Since I wasn’t exactly charitable towards Phair’s later solo efforts, she or her people might be especially interested in shoving me a round. I get that. I probably have it coming.)

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