Soberish review: Liz Phair probes 21st-century life's gray areas
On her first album in 11 years, Phair asserts herself as far more than a heritage artist
Contradictions live at the heart of Liz Phair's songwriting: the tensions between love and lust, flirtation and consummation, finely wrought emotions and pop-song grandeur. Take the title Soberish, her seventh album and first in 11 years. Any pretenses toward the staid or clear-minded are upended by those three letters at the end, which imply at least a passing thought or two about altering one's mind. It's an apt title for an album that probes 21st-century life's many gray areas while tossing off memorable choruses.
In the three decades since Phair's take on bedroom pop — the rough-hewn self-produced series of Girly-Sound cassettes — wowed the music cognoscenti and added a much-needed dash of girl talk to the independent-music scene, she's walked her own path, obliterating ideas about what women in rock can do and say. Her 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, and the two albums that followed — 1994's Whip-Smart and 1998's whitechocolatespaceegg — were startling in their honesty about the ups and downs of '90s life. She sang of pain and joy in equally vivid detail, using plainly spoken lyrics that shocked the parental-advisory set and resonated deeply with twentysomethings. On 2003's Liz Phair, she shed the "indie" label entirely and collaborated with Avril Lavigne's gurus the Matrix. It was derided at the time, although in a post-Framing Britney world the nasty reactions seem more than a bit unfair. Meanwhile, 2010's Funstyle, which Phair initially self-released, was a loopy, carefree collection that got a lot of attention for its dabbling in hip-hop while including crunchy, acerbic tracks like the label-head broadside "And He Slayed Her."
Phair took a breather from releasing new albums after that, instead writing for television, including the free-loving CBS drama Swingtown and the Jennifer Love Hewitt vehicle The Client List. In 2019, she published her memoir, Horror Stories. That trip to the past would eventually lead to Soberish, which harnesses the lessons Phair has amassed over her career while keeping alive the idiosyncratic spirit that's made even her lesser-regarded works compelling.
Phair recorded the new album with Brad Wood, the engineer and producer who helped bring her '90s albums to life. Their pairing is even more ideal three decades out; they're not afraid to take chances, like starting a big comeback album on an uncertain note, as Soberish does when Phair asks "Is something wrong?" The skittish synths surrounding her question feel ominous, probing — reflecting an anxiety that's about to burst. Similarly, the characters who populate Soberish are dealt a lot of curveballs, like the busted-up marriage described in "Spanish Doors." It's an excellent introduction to Soberish, which revels in nervy song structures and unexpected instrumental touches even on its more straightforward tracks, such as the "Polyester Bride"-echoing "Good Side." The horns that rise up to accompany Phair's solidified sense of self on the slow-burning "Soul Sucker" give her inner journey a heroic feel, while her voice's airy upper register makes the plea at the heart of "Lonely St." even more potent. Often, the music on Soberish reflects her characters' travails in stunning ways. "Sheridan Rd.," which describes a dreamscape where two Chicago-born lovers have transcended their pasts, ends with glassy guitars that evoke the sun glinting off Lake Michigan. "Ba Ba Ba" shape-shifts from a perky description of early blush love, the music sparkling as Phair sings of catching feelings from illicit encounters. Then real life intrudes; the music gets more urgent (if no less bright), and she can only hear "the sound of the end of us."
Phair has left multiple indelible marks on rock over her 30-year career, and her legacy can be heard all over best-of lists. But with Soberish, she's asserting herself as far more than a heritage artist; she's still working on her craft, honing it and imbuing it with the wisdom she's accrued as a rock star, a woman, a mom, a lover, and a person living in an increasingly off-kilter world. A–