Liz Phair, Somebody’s Miracle

Liz Phair, Somebody's Miracle

I recently watched Martin Scorsese’s fascinating, very nearly illuminating Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home, and between the clips of British fans denouncing him, the chaotic and mythical Newport Folk Festival performance, and the withering disdain Dylan seemed to have for the press that attempted to turn him into the story they wanted to tell (rather than reporting the story as it actually was), I found myself wondering whether it would even be possible for a modern musician to provoke the same degree of anger, the same sense of betrayal. (I’m talking through nothing but music; the Dixie Chicks’ supposed transgressions were entirely behind the scenes.) We’re pretty open-minded these days, and if Jay-Z wanted to make a country CD or Dashboard Confessional released a collection of booty-shaking jams, it might provoke apathy or mockery, but it would hardly be cause for generational alarm. Selling out still certainly happens and is disheartening (as I write this, I hang my head in embarrassment for Nelly Furtado), but it’s generally viewed as personal weakness rather than an act of aggression.

But then I remembered: Liz Phair. The howls of disdain for her homonymous last album were so assaultive and widespread that I confess to being somewhat surprised when, on seeing her live in support of the thing, nobody replicated the legendary moment (captured in No Direction Home and on Dylan’s Live 1966) when, between songs, a bitter British Dylan fan screamed out, “Judas!” Maybe it surprised Phair, too; she followed up the sexually explicit “Flower,” one of the songs that established her persona and approach, with the glossy and Billboard-targeted “Extraordinary,” which had been held up as emblematic of her traitorousness to a scene that, if anyone had bothered paying attention, she already spent her entire first album subtly taking swipes at. That sequence was a deliberate decision, one designed to force her audience into making a choice, and it was, in its way, as much of a middle finger to her detractors as was Dylan telling the Band to “play fucking loud” right before tearing into damn near the most caustic version of “Like A Rolling Stone” imaginable.

Picking up right where Liz Phair left off, with “Leap Of Innocence” continuing the rootsy, organ-laden pop of “Good Love Never Dies,” Somebody’s Miracle finds Phair in a less combative mood. It’s quite possibly the most unabashedly joyous album of her career. If Liz Phair was a fine album wrapped in a package that most of her fans wouldn’t even open, it was still moderately disjointed and maybe even a little tentative, as though Phair knew that she was walking into a snake pit as she was recording it. Not so for Miracle, which takes the frisky ebullience that she applied to her sex life in “Supernova” and sets it loose on a wider experiential map. “Everything (Between Us)” ends up both soothing and soaring as a result, while the effortlessly ecstatic “Stars And Planets” owes a debt to the psychological uplift of “Instant Karma.” “Lazy Dreamer,” meanwhile, skitters across the sand so quickly and so smoothly that while you know logically that it’s just the waves of heat radiating from the surface, you could still swear that you can’t see the thing actually touching the ground.

The other great revelation of Miracle is in just how accomplished a record-maker Phair has become. Where her early work was distinguished by an offhand approach that seemed to prefer a distinct lack of fuss, Miracle builds on the more involved productions of Liz Phair to showcase a performer unafraid of actually using the versatility that a studio provides. It comes through in elements like the string section that sweetens the choruses of “Everything To Me” and “Everything (Between Us)” without smothering them, but it’s most invaluable in the songs that rely on nothing more than a straightforward band. There’s a nice balance between organic and professional all over the record, with a feel like underground Memphis or Nashville (especially pronounced on “Leap Of Innocence,” “Lost Tonight,” and the title track), where there are subtle country inflections but with more edge.

With increasing mastery over the studio and a palpably upbeat approach, Phair has produced what sure sounds like her most intimate album to date. And not intimate in the sense of getting a glimpse of her most private moments, either, but intimate in the sense of her private moments being our private moments as well. It comes through ironically enough in “Table For One,” an otherwise closed-off portrait of an alcoholic where the music acts as a lifeline, and in the Stonesy “Why I Lie,” where it’s lovely to hear Phair’s voice, and the melody it’s singing, in full bloom. But it reaches its zenith during the chorus of “Everything (Between Us),” which may be the first time Phair has used sex in the service of love, rather than just screwing.

The album isn’t perfect: the soulful Telecaster-sounding guitar licks and Garth Hudson-style organ of “Wind And The Mountain” go on at least a minute too long, and the respectable “Everything To Me” is less interesting than the reviled “Extraordinary” despite being, arguably, an objectively better song. And there’s an argument to be made that the album might be her most lyrically inconsequential, with a few slogans cutting through the clutter but nothing really demanding examination the way that Exile In Guyville did, constantly and with malice aforethought.

Even so, Miracle shows that Phair is capable of making the music she wants under her own terms. It’s possible that her fans would have accepted something like “Giving It All To You” as her dedicated assault on the pop charts instead of “Why Can’t I,” but she probably couldn’t have done the former without Liz Phair paving the way. Even if her last album is dismissed as a pure head-clearing exercise, Miracle puts it in context, showing that both are a part of the same progression. “Can’t stop thinking about all the crazy possibilities,” sings Phair on the last line of the album, and if she ever did, her songs would still be stuck in Guyville. And Liz Phair would be worse off for it.

(Capitol Records -- 1750 N. Vine Street, Hollywood, CA. 90028; http://www.capitolrecords.com/; Liz Phair -- http://www.lizphair.com/)
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Thursday, November 23rd, 2006. Filed under Reviews.

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