Home Read Albums Of The Week: Liz Phair | Soberish

Albums Of The Week: Liz Phair | Soberish

The singer-songwriter acts her age with confident grace on this comeback album.

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THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “Almost 30 years since her peerless debut album, Exile In Guyville, Liz Phair returns with Soberish, her first set of original material in 11 years. Produced by longtime collaborator Brad Wood — known for helming Exile In Guyville, Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg — Phair’s new record aims to both intrigue and satisfy her long-standing fans, and introduce her to a smart young audience whose contemporary heroes have been reading from Phair’s playbook since they first picked up a guitar.

Soberish is a portrait of Phair in the present tense, taking all of the facets of her melodic output over the years and synthesizing them into a beautiful, perfect whole. She’s at the top of her game in the recording studio, drawing upon years of experience to weave through the songs daring and unexpected sound design. With Wood’s engineering and production, the result is a wholly fresh yet satisfyingly familiar sound that challenges on the first listen and seduces with each subsequent play through.

Phair says, “I found my inspiration for Soberish by delving into an early era of my music development, my art school years spent listening to art-ock and new wave music non-stop on my Walkman. The English Beat, The Specials, Madness, R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People, Yazoo, The Psychedelic Furs, Talking Heads, Velvet Underground, Laurie Anderson, and The Cars. The city came alive for me as a young person, the bands in my headphones lending me the courage to explore.”

None of the arrangements on Soberish are traditional songwriting standards, but the hooks are so catchy, the imagery so compelling, that the listener is drawn effortlessly along with the music. There are the off-kilter, unexpected guitar chords listeners will recognize as her signature style, a mainstay from her earliest work; the instantly knowable choruses of her most pop-friendly songs of the early 2000’s; the frank lyricism and storytelling that has opened doors for countless women picking up guitars and attempting to speak about their experiences.

To look forward, Phair has spent a little time looking back. Looking back at a career that has achieved so much, and with plenty more to come. The celebrated box set reissue of Guvyille and the Girly-Sound tapes back in 2018 acted as a catalyst for Liz to remember what teenage Liz felt when that music was putting her name up in lights. It was a dizzying blur of excitement, fueled by her innate knack for delivering straightforward but devastating, razor-sharp songs. Soberish arrives, shoulder to shoulder with her past work, full of world-weary experience but dancing with a breeziness and brashness that wouldn’t be out of place at any point in her career. From the record’s title track to Spanish Doors, The Game, Ba Ba Ba, In There and Hey Lou, these hooks and melodies have never come easier for Phair.

Phair shares insight into the meaning of her title: “Soberish can be about partying. It can be about self-delusion. It can be a about chasing that first flush of love or, in fact, any state of mind that allows you to escape reality for a while and exist on a happier plane. It’s not self-destructive or out of control; it’s as simple as the cycle of dreaming and waking up. That’s why I chose to symbolize Soberish with a crossroads, with a street sign. It’s best described as a simple pivot of perspective. When you meet your ‘ish’ self again after a period of sobriety, there’s a deep recognition and emotional relief that floods you, reminding you that there is more to life, more to reality and to your own soul than you are consciously aware of. But if you reach for too much of a good thing, or starve yourself with too little, you’ll lose that critical balance.”

If Liz Phair’s career has had a governing philosophy, we might take it as this: hold to the center, swing around. This return, this new collection of songs, shows her at her finest: playful, inquisitive, uncompromising, but anchored. The center can still hold.”