loved Liz Phair’s 2003 eponymous album. Sure, the vocals were ProTooled within an inch of their lives, the guitars too emphatic, the attempt at outrage misplaced and just plain odd (let’s hum that ode to hot white cum). But listen to the songs again: “Rock Me,” “It’s Sweet,” and “Extraordinary” were revelations, with hints of self-doubt nibbling at the bravado projected by The Matrix’s big bam boom production.
I suspect that the guys who’ve always wanted her to remain their blowjob queen—as long as they didn’t have to do something emotionally complicated, like, you know, date intelligent women like her—were repulsed by Phair’s ease with the teen argot and clichéd sentiments they thought she’d long outgrown. They heard surrender. Hearing Phair admit she wanted to play with her boy toy’s X-box made one cringe at first, but it was such an honest admission I can understand if this guy bolted out the door; it’s not often a thirtysomething woman meets you on your terms and dares you to match her.
The ickily-titled Somebody’s Miracle offers nothing as insistent as "Why Can’t I?" and it will probably cost her in the marketplace; the Avril Lavigne fans who made “Why Can’t I” her first gold-certified single are a fickle bunch. Now Phair, a performer whose protean skills go unremarked by almost everyone, is going after the John Mayer and Stevie Nicks bread. Foregrounding the self-doubt that was a quiet but insistent subtext on the eponymous album, producer John Shanks provides unobtrusive arrangements and lets Phair strum more electric guitar; this is a singer-songwriter record, like Exile On Guyville. It’s also warmer than its predecessor. Since “warm” often congeals into “bland,” Somebody’s Miracle lacks moments like Michael Penn’s guitar picking the unresolved melody line at the conclusion of “It’s Sweet”—moments of instrumental or lyrical spontaneity, if not vulgarity, all of which are anathema to singer-songwriter rock.
But true Phair fans have come to expect sacrifices. Abandoning lo-fi values when she needed a sound bold enough to match her increasingly meticulous songwriting, she’s now eschewed the responsibilities expected of a thirtysomething woman with a Clear Channel hit single. The best songs on Somebody’s Miracle are at once ruminative and pop-friendly; with subtext as text, your songs better be unambiguous. And they are: the chiming guitars belie the weariness of “Wind and the Mountains” (with its “I am so tired” refrain) and “Everything (Between Us)”; the latter in particular suggests gulfs of misunderstanding between the two lovers that Phair’s breathy, girlishly high vocals—which have an air of insincerity about them—cannot bridge. The narrative strain she perfected on Whitechocolatespaceegg’s “Uncle Alvarez” reaches new heights in “Table For One,” in which an alcoholic observes, with the chilling flatness Phair usually saves for her lovestruck heroines: “there will always be some kind of crisis for me.”
If Somebody’s Miracle had included more songs as good as “Wind and the Mountains” or “Got My Own Thing” (a ringer for a track on Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions, her own peak as a trad singer-songwriter), it would have approached the near-greatness of Whitechocolatespaceegg, an uneven collection of songs whose multiplicity of perspectives was refracted by Phair’s cold watchful eye. But a near-deadly string of interchangeable rockers in the middle stretch reinforces the perception—by now a reality for a lot of Guyville fans—that her fondness for Michelle Branch is commensurate with her avarice.
Luckily the tension between commerce and privacy—the true polarity, not the bullshit commerce-versus-art thing with which indie fuhrers still condemn me and other Kelly Osbourne fans—fascinates Phair almost as much as dissecting her romantic travails. How long could we expect an artist of Phair’s caliber to record 4-track demos in her room? Instead of dreaming about dick, she’s going out to get it. She’s still comfortable inviting Amy Rigby over for a cup of tea, but only if the hunk downstairs doesn’t return her text messages. Who said friends have to be sincere?