It’s all over my Facebook page today that Liz Phair’s debut album Exile in Guyville is 20 years old this year. I don’t know if today is the anniversary of the release date or something (and I’m too lazy to look it up), but either way, it’s been out 20 years – and that’s a long time.
I still recall the first time hearing this album. My friend/niece Kimi and I were hanging out at her place doing absolutely nothing and she excitedly put the CD in after getting it from….somewhere. Not sure. She said that I would love it. That it was us. Our lives. Which, looking back, we were awfully young to consider these songs the soundtrack to our lives. And no matter how early we were at blooming, still. I had never had a “Soap Star Joe”, for example. But I did have male friends who left suspicious things in the sink. For reals. Literally. And when I heard that, I was sold. OH MY GOD. This woman knows everything.
One after another I found a piece or a line from each song that completely and totally resonated with me and my burgeoning womanhood. How did this woman so perfectly articulate what it’s like to be me???
Each song came from such a strong viewpoint, but most of them are not necessarily about girl empowerment. More just about recognizing the situation and dealing with it. With her deep alto voice, she gives off a sense of strength while at the same time, an underlying vulnerability and sadness.
She tapped into an honesty that was not at the forefront of any female artist that I can think of at the time. Most women, even when singing about these very topics, over poeticized and decorated everything in metaphor. Liz put it out there, front and center. These are the events that happened. These are the words that were said. (The only other similar album I can think of is Janis Ian’s Between the Lines. One of my all-time favorites – though it is a bit more on the sappy overly dramatic side. It is a BLAST to sing along to when you’re drinking alone. Also that link goes to a listening page on her website. Enjoy!)
On the musicianship side of things, I’ve always been so frustrated because I want to learn to play these songs, but the chords she uses are so strange and my fingers just don’t do those things that there are very few that I can genuinely play in an unaltered way.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to have written such a defining, important album. And then the pressure while writing your next one – which I LOVE Whip-Smart, by the way. It’s not Exile in Guyville, and it shouldn’t be. But the songs are just as smart and engaging.
I had an idea last year to ask local female musicians to submit a cover of a song from Exile in Guyville to put together for a tribute album…but I never got around to doing. I spoke to someone who did this last year for Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs album and he told me what an undertaking it was. I just didn’t have the time for it then. But it’s still something I’d like to try. And if I would have realized the 20 year anniversary was this year, I totally would have tried harder to make it happen.
This album means a lot to me and it still holds up today. It’s a classic. Getting past all of the “Fuck and Run” and “Flower” type songs (which are awesome), it’s way more than what it appears like on paper. It’s just a really good album from beginning to end. Which is a big task for an album with 18 songs. Not a single dud to be found.
I’m trying to think if there is any way I could choose my Top 3 tracks from this album….I don’t think it’s possible. Maybe “Divorce Song” would be #1. That could change tomorrow. And from there, I don’t know what would be next.
Thanks for this album, Liz.