What makes Liz Phair heroic to some and intimidating to others (those who deserve it, let’s say) is her ability to pierce the emotional heart of a situation. At her best, a good Liz Phair lyric goes beyond cutting through bullshit into the type of earth-shaking insight that leaves you speechless. Of course, being “real” and a “truth teller” can be a trap, as Phair knows better than almost anybody: The Cassandra of the ’90s Chicago alt-rock scene has spent the past couple of decades experimenting with her image, and has been pilloried for it by critics. Too nasty, too sweet, too soft, too slick—the only solution is to find a place in the middle. And that’s what she does on Soberish, her first record in a decade.
This is an album written by a full-grown adult; as she puts it in a press release, “If you reach for too much of a good thing, or starve yourself with too little, you’ll lose that critical balance.” Some of the songs on Soberish come from that place of hard-won perspective, as when Phair rolls a joint for an inebriated barfly on penultimate track “Dosage” before imparting this perceptive—and catchy—advice she got from Henry the bartender: “Dosage is everything, it hurts you or it helps.” When it comes to matters of the heart, however, she’s still figuring things out. Over the course of Soberish, relationships are captured at every stage, from “sneaking past the maid” for a hotel-room tryst to downing a shot in order to work up the courage to end things.
This time, however, Phair’s direct melodies and raw lyrics are accompanied by instrumentation, and lots of it. Phair describes this record as a journey into her “art school years spent listening to Art Rock and New Wave music non-stop on my Walkman,” citing bands like The English Beat, R.E.M., The Psychedelic Furs, Talking Heads, and The Cars as the formative influences being re-explored. The ’80s does appear in the hard, tinny drum machine that powers “In There,” as well as on “The Game,” a song that opens with a little John Cougar Mellencamp by way of Liz Phair. But some of the production is orchestral enough to flirt with chamber pop, like the strings backing lead single “Hey Lou.”
Soberish starts off strong, opening with the infectious “Spanish Doors” and building to “Hey Lou,” whose chorus is the most invasive earworm on an album that has plenty of them. It’s told from the perspective of an exasperated wife–specifically, Laurie Anderson, artist, musician, and spouse of the late Lou Reed—but also an abstract revolt against entitled male “genius” in general. (Anderson is another artist Phair name-checks in the album press kit, and the music video features puppet versions of the couple—an Anderson signature.) It also has the benefit of being honed into a strong, compact three-minute pop song, a quality the second half of the record lacks. For example, “Ba Ba Ba”’s lyrics cut deep—“I don’t have the guts to tell you I feel safe,” Phair sings, a throwaway line some artists would build an entire song around—but the song devolves into humming and handclaps, as if she couldn’t be bothered to finish her thought.
In this way, the same unbothered attitude that makes Soberish feel authentic also hurts it. Phair’s self-conscious tinkering is less blatant here than it was on 2010’s Funstyle—yes, there is a teensy bit of spoken word (“rapping” isn’t quite the right term), but it’s far from the focus of the record. And while the orchestral elements add some much-needed texture, too many of the songs unfold at the same midtempo pace, an effect that makes the title track, for one, seem much longer than it actually is. (The unfocused structure doesn’t help matters.) Phair’s vocals come through clear and unadorned, thanks to producer Brad Wood (who brought us her classic early records Exile In Guyville, Whip-Smart, and part of whitechocolatespaceegg), highlighting brilliant nuggets of melody like the up-and-down accompaniment to “When you think back on us / I don’t want you to feel bad,” leading into the big, strummed chorus of “Good Side.” (Between that song and opener “Spanish Doors,” this is Phair’s best divorce material since Guyville.) But Wood’s work exposes the weaknesses in songs as often as it mitigates them, as on “Soul Sucker,” a track that’s written like a feral PJ Harvey blues number and produced like a radio pop hit.
Four albums in, one assumes that Phair likes this commercial gloss, or else she wouldn’t keep doing it. Soberish is clearly a return to her roots, but calling it a “return to form” would require throwing out the entirety of her post-2000 output as an aberration—something that she, based on the affected arrangements and canned handclaps on this record, is unwilling to do, at least in terms of production. And who are we to say what is or isn’t the “true” Liz Phair, anyway? Many artists who start out lo-fi eventually move into a bigger, more produced sound. Whether we like it has something to do with the music—one could argue that Phair doesn’t need to gussy things up like she does—but it also has something to do with the expectations we place on a songwriter with the ability to speak to our souls. Phair speaks freely now about how that pressure from said expectations almost broke her, and you have to admit, whether it was conscious or not, making a series of commercial pop albums to shed the burden of street cred is kind of hilarious. The queen of self-sabotage she may be, but at least, as she sings on “Good Side,” “I try to be original.”