Liz Phair – ‘Soberish’ review: an icon honours her legacy – and sets a new path

The cult indie star is back with her first new album in a decade – it's a refreshing reminder of her brilliance, which is all around us in the next generation

Since 1993, Liz Phair has primarily been remembered for her debut album ‘Exile in Guyville’, a classic record from the indie canon which playfully skewered the sexism at the core of rock’n’roll. A double album based on The Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile on Main St’ the record saw the US musician taking the potent sexuality of Mick Jagger, and owning it for herself – gatekeepers be damned.

Her next records – 1994’s ‘Whip-Smart’ and 1998’s ‘Whitechocolatespaceegg’ – were just as accomplished, and then came Phair’s major label debut ‘Liz Phair’. Perhaps unfairly, it saw the musician lambasted for ‘selling out’ with the pop-leaning anthems that would later become gateway songs for her next generation of fans. ‘Somebody’s Miracle’ would be her final major label record in 2005 – and was followed by the wilfully strange, self-released album ‘Funstyle’ five years later. After that, Phair went on a kind of hiatus, not touring for eight years. Instead she focused on writing memoir Horror Stories, and worked in television scoring and sound design.

And after a rocky ride in the industry, ‘Soberish’ – Liz Phair’s first new album in a decade – marks a return to the sound of her earlier records and the home-recorded cassettes she released as Girly Sounds in the early ‘90s. One such link comes from her choice of collaborator – Brad Wood produced Phair’s first two albums, and a handful of tracks from ‘Whitechocolatespaceegg’.

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Liz Phair has long been interested in drawing the beauty out of imperfection: a ‘wrong’ finger placement nudging a neighbouring fret, the subtle buzz of a fingertip. And in Wood, she finds the perfect creative match – together, they weave these small moments into something that sounds alive.

Dig into these pacey, indie rock songs, and you’ll find countless experimental touches and snatches of studio chatter (on ‘Bad Kitty’ you can hear Phair shout-whispering at her 20-something son, who helped her to record during lockdown). ‘Spanish Doors’, a song about pasting on a smile after discovering something life-changing at a social event, sees three competing choruses jostling for headspace. “Don’t wanna think about it, don’t wanna talk about it,” lulls a chipper robotic vocal; underneath, Phair sings of unsmiling ghosts in the mirror, and her biggest fears. “I can’t hide my lying face,” sings a buried vocal, “there’s no way out for me and you”.

The sleeve for ‘Soberish’ shows a crossroads, and this is also an album about transitional moments. On ‘Sheridan Road’ the splutter of a motorbike makes way for a rumbling storm; Phair looks back over years of memories “merging, converging” on this same Chicago road. Beneath spiky, restless guitars, the title track finds her in the blurred phase between intoxicated and sober. “Tell me, why do we keep dicking around?” she asks, plain-speaking as ever. “Waited such a long time to be with you, now I’m chickening out”. And ‘Good Side’ sees Phair breaking away from a relationship and only leaving fond memories behind; “There’s so many ways to fuck up a life,” she quips in the opening line, “I’ve tried to be original”. It screens like a break-up song, but also feels like a song about artistic legacy.

Speaking of legacy: ‘Soberish’ serves as a reminder of Liz Phair’s brilliance after years of underestimation. Far from simply drawing on her most critically acclaimed albums, it draws on the whole lot, and finds newness within. ‘Bad Kitty’ (sample lyric: “My pussy is a big dumb cat / It lies around lazy and fat”) feels like a throwback to Phair’s most playful side: evident both on the debut and her 2010 release ‘Funstyle’. ‘In There’ and ‘Soul Sucker’ show off her atmospheric prowess, and sit closest to ‘Whitechocolatespaceegg’.

These are all songs that, just like the rest of Phair’s finest moments, have a delicious knack for becoming lodged in your brain.

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Release date: June 11

Release label: Chrysalis Records

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