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Liz Phair: Exile in Guyville

PR photo by Robert Manella, Matador Records

PR photo by Robert Manella, Matador Records

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Album ReCue, a part of FUV's EQFM initiative, takes an on-air and online look back at influential releases by women that altered our perspective not only of the artist, but her invaluable impact on music history. Above, listen to a conversation with Alisa Ali and Darren DeVivo about Liz Phair's 1993 solo debut, Exile in Guyville, and below, Laura Fedele's overview.

I bought this album — well, I bought this CD, it was 1993 — before hearing a note. There was so much buzz about it, and this was pre-Internet, the old-school print media stirred things up: Everybody loved it. I read Rolling Stone and the Village Voice and plunked down my money.

The press put it out there that Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville was a song-by-song reply to the Rolling Stones’ ultra-macho Exile on Main St. but I was too entranced to keep track. It was so naked, it was every nasty teenage girl thought strung together, complete with uncensored language and raucous guitar accompaniment.

Oh, the power dynamics of “Flower” could make you blush even more than the language. And the specificity — the quiet and heartbreaking exchange in “Divorce Song” for one — cut through all the crap of nineties pop radio.

Time hasn’t dulled the glow: Awards and accolades piled up, it got on every list of great albums released since, there was a 20th anniversary rerelease and tour (yes, I was there at Hiro Ballroom, with many other women my age). Looking back at Guyville after two decades, the New Yorker called it “an eighteen-song record of what used to be called indie rock, arguably the quintessential example of the form... The record plays with so many rock tropes it is difficult to categorize them: the Stonesian naughtiness, the wise-beyond-her-years world-weariness, the blistering putdown, the porny sex incantation.”

When one of the Guyville songs comes up on the radio — and there are a few that are playable without incurring fines, like the infectious “Never Said” — it’s like a time capsule has popped open. Not that the songs bear the kind of ’80s production bugaboos that make them sound dated, but they are of a very particular time; when it was shocking to hear a (young, pretty, white) woman speak her mind so directly, when it was not shocking that interviewers asked if that really was her playing the guitar.

Phair did a track-by-track breakdown of Guyville for Rolling Stone in 2018, which is candy to the obsessed. Her explanation of “F**k and Run”: “The song, to me, is probably the most emblematic of what made people like my music in the first place, with these stories that you wouldn’t think that you would be privy to or that you wouldn’t expect to hear are just absolutely laid down in a kind of classic rock or pop song format. Like, “There you go. Yep, just sat up in bed. I’m not quite sure who this guy is, but, like, I don’t think I’ll be seeing him again.” You never heard those stories in popular culture.”

Phair has had to answer questions about Guyville pretty continually for decades, through releasing five subsequent studio albums and releasing a memoir (Horror Stories, which she spoke about with our own DJ Kara Manning in 2019). She’s remarkably patient about it. I suppose there is a kind of gentility that comes with realizing your 20-something lo-fi recordings have become a feminist landmark; with influencing so many thousands of young women to plug in their own guitars and let it all fly.

The New York Times asked Phair what she would want women to take away from the album all these years later. “I want, 500 years from now, people to be able to look back and learn what women were thinking, what they were feeling, what they wanted, what their lives were like. I want them to be historically there, present, remembered. And I want to be a part of that.”

Fans can look ahead as well as behind them — Phair has signed with Chrysalis and plans to release a new album next year.

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WFUV's EQFM Album ReCue: Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville

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