In Which Entertainers Bring May Flowers

Celebrating Exile in Guyville

by Tyler Coates

This week, Pitchfork reported that Liz Phair’s debut Exile in Guyville will be reissued in celebration of its 15th anniversary. The album, released in 1993 to much acclaim, which labled Phair as an indie it-girl, is currently out of print following Phair’s recent departure (and disappointing recent albums) from Capitol Records.

To enlighten those of you who have yet to realize how truly amazing this album really is (and to entertain the rest of you who already know it), I’ll guide you through one of the finest records ever made. And yes, it is my number one, desert island pick, thankyouverymuch.

1. 6’1″ (mp3)

Liz Phair has always said that Exile in Guyville was a feminist response to the classic Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones. “It had to be either putting [Mick Jagger] into his place, like if he was talking about walking down the street, and he’s talking about he’s mister footloose and fancy free, doesn’t meet anyone who gives a damn,” she said, “I had to write a song about how much pain you could cause someone with that kind of attitude.”

It’s a nice thought that doesn’t necessarily translate well when you listen to the album in the context of The Rolling Stones, but it does kind of work if the opener is a response to “Rocks Off,” where Mick sings, “I only get my rocks off while I’m sleeping.”

2. Help Me Mary (mp3)

Lindsay Robertson writes:

I was walking home the other day and a Liz Phair song that I always loved was going through my head, and I realized that I might not know where maturity comes from or starts, but some small bit of it begins to metastasize the moment this line:

‘Weave my disgust into fame / And watch how fast they run into the flame’

stops being a suitable candidate for your email signature/facebook whatever and starts making you feel really sick to your stomach that you ever thought it was clever in an un-totally-ironic way. This is the only absolutely true maturity metric I can think of. When I moved to NY in 2000, that line was my email signature. Today it seems like either a brilliant parody of the bravado and skewed values of the American twentysomething, or something very sad about Liz Phair. Probably both.

I disagree with Lindsay, though – maybe because I’m still only 24.

3. Glory (mp3)

4. Dance of the Seven Veils (mp3)

In “Dance of the Seven Veils,” Liz transforms herself into Salomé, ordering the head of her lover on a silver platter. It’s probably the first time I ever heard a woman call herself a cunt.

5. Never Said (mp3)

6. Soap Star Joe (mp3)

Phair came out of the Chicago independent music scene around the same time as Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, and Material Issue. The experience of living in Wicker Park, the west-town neighborhood that is still the symbolic base for Chicago’s hipsters and artists, was what fueled Guyville (an appropriate title, considering her role as one of the few women in a male-dominated indie-rock society). When the Chicago Reader announced Exile to be one of the year’s best albums and denounced the local critics for their vitriolic backlash against Phair because of her personal life, Steve Albini wrote a letter to the editor claiming, “Liz Phair is Rickie Lee Jones (more talked about than heard, a persona completely unrooted in substance, and a fucking chore to listen to).”

Ironically, in Guyville Redux, the documentary about the making of the album that will be packaged with its reissue, Liz Phair interviews Chicago locals (including John Cusack, Ira Glass, and members of Urge Overkill) about the music scene of the early ’90s. One of those interviewees is Albini himself, who said, six months after the album’s initial release: “Artists who survive on hype are often critics’ pets. They don’t, however, make timeless, classic music that survives trends and inspires generations of fans and other artists.”

7. Explain It to Me (mp3)

8. Canary

No one has ever said that Liz Phair had a pretty voice. In fact, on those early records, she frequently out of key, monotone, and sometimes sounds like a man. Yet there’s an incredible purity about her voice on Exile in Guyville – it was before she was signed to a mainstream record label, took voice lessons, and played around with computers. Sure, it’s not always pleasant to listen to (a friend of mine described the album as sounding like it was recorded at an Open Mic night), but it represents an honesty in music that you wouldn’t get had she the access to Auto-Tune.

9. Mesmerizing (mp3)

10. Fuck and Run (mp3)

By far the most famous Phair song, one that could never get radio play. It’s also the most representative of the album: it’s incredibly introspective and confessional, reflecting romantic disappointment that is pretty universal. It also hinders from making any kind of apologies for the “fuck and run.” She knows she doesn’t want it, but she’s not going to feel like she’s a bad person for doing it. In its list of the 500 best albums (Exile is number 328), Rolling Stone said that it “is one of the saddest songs ever written about dreaming of romance and settling for less.”

11. Girls! Girls! Girls! (mp3)

12. Divorce Song

“Divorce Song” is my number one favorite song of all time. It owes a lot, musically, to “Emotional Rescue,” which was not on Exile on Main Street. And it contains the finest lines Liz Phair ever wrote:

It’s harder to be friends than lovers
and you shouldn’t try to mix the two.
‘Cause if you do it and you’re still unhappy
then you know that the problem is you.

Liz’s take:

Every song I write is on various states of aloneness and togetherness, maybe because I’m adopted. Sometimes you’re married and alone, or you’re single and alone, wanting to be with someone. It’s all about being and not being together . . . but I have no idea who the guy was

13. Shatter (mp3)

14. Flower (mp3)

Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote that Phair “is thought of as one of the dirty girls with a rough mouth, one who can be plain and unpretty about sex.” The common criticism is mostly a reaction to “Flower,” the song in which Liz transforms herself into an aggressively sexual being. She sings, “I want to fuck you like a dog” and “I want to be your Blow Job Queen” fairly unapologetically. And when she says, “You’re probably shy and introspective, but that’s not part of my objective,” I can’t help but think of her ripping apart the indie-rock dudes in Wicker Park fifteen years ago. You better believe she’d chew up Vampire Weekend and spit them back out without much thought.

15. Johnny Sunshine (mp3)

16. Gunshy

17. Stratford-on-Guy

18. Strange Loop (mp3)

The reissue of Exile in Guyville, featuring the Guyville Redux DVD and four bonus tracks (previously unreleased demo recordings, a new studio track, and an untitled instrumental), will be released on June 24. Expect a new Liz Phair album in the fall on ATO Records.

Tyler Coates is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Chicago, and the sole proprietor of Too Much Awesome.

The author meets Liz Phair.


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10 thoughts on “In Which Entertainers Bring May Flowers

  1. How nice of you to make the entire album available for free download so your readers won’t have to buy it. Liz sends her thanks.

    And who the fuck is Lindsay Robertson and why should anyone care what she thinks about “Help Me, Mary”?

    Boo, hiss…

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