At some point during the process of making her long-overdue new album, whitechocolatespaceegg, Liz Phair's manager offered the singer/songwriter a piece of advice. "He was like, 'Take your calendar, and on every day for month, write Be Liz Phair,'" she recalls. "And I was like, 'Fuck you! Be Liz Phair. What the fuck does that mean? But the 31-year-old author of the must-hear 1993 album Exile in Guyville knew precisely what he meant. If she wanted to get back on the industry's radar after a four-year absence, she'd do well to think back to her "Fuck and Run" days and dig up some festering memories of bad one-nighters.
The problem is Phair doesn't particulary feel like trading on that image anymore. Nor is she much concerned with returning to the days when she was the most popular girl in the business. "I remember driving around with friends, going, 'It's time to deposit this $200,000 check!'" she says. "That was a gas. But at the same time, I had the lowest self-esteem I've ever had in my life. I look at pictures and I was really thin in an unhealthy way. I smoked lot of pot. I felt hunted. It was icky."
Today Phair looks clear-eyed and content. She is married now, with a one-and-a-half-year-old son. She drives a sport utility vehicle. She's in a mommy group. And she is ready to straighten out all those rumors about how her first attempt at whitechocolatespaceegg was rejected by either her label, Matador, or Capitol, with whom Matador has a distribution deal. "This is the real shit, okay?" she says. "I turned it in, and they were like, 'That's great. But we need you to write two hits.' I don't seem to have the knack. Gary Gersh, who was Capitol's president and CEO during the recording of Phair's album, says, "There has never been a rejected record. We sat down with Liz and said, 'Listen, is this everything you want it to be? Because we aren't sure it is what we were hoping it would be.' And together we made the decision to work on it more."
Phair admits she wasn't trying very hard. "It was really about my saying, 'Focus on your job. Finish this album.' Because I hadn't put enough work into it. I wanted to play with my baby."
In addition, Phair wasn't sure she wanted to share anymore. One of the perils of being a singer/songwriter is that if you hit a certain audience -- in Phair's case, cerebral, overbred, pissed-off, horny single chicks and the guys who have sex with them -- right where they live, they will block the exits until you produce more of the same. But unlike, say, Tori Amos, who cultivates an intimate, confessional relationship with her fans, Phair has never been comfortable with the idea of herself as girly sob sister. "Exile was because I was pissed at a specific man in a specific neighborhood, for specific reasons," she says. "That gave it that big punch everyone felt. But I was already over him, and all these unhappy people were coming up to me saying things like, 'You saved me, I was dying.' It creeped me out."
On whitechocolatespaceegg, a weird little record full of obtuse lyrics and esoteric flourishes (see review, page 186), Phair seems to be purposely defying listeners to identify with the songs. Unlike her previous albums, there is no overarching theme, and she plays with a variety of musical styles, from swampy to jangly. There is a quiet, intense-girl-in-her-room-noodling-around appeal to it, but the emotional truths at the core of Exile and its followup, Whip-Smart, are missing, and whether Phair's fans will be equally enraptured with her art-school pastiche is uncertain. Phair says she could give the people the tortured songs they crave -- "The fuck-and-run girl will always be part of me, unfortunately" -- but she doesn't really want to.
"I suppose what happens after you get married and have a baby is that you're not willing to vent your rage and shove it down people's throats," she says. "I'm more respectful of those I have made commitments to. I don't want to barf out my badness." KIM FRANCE