Fuck and run / Fuck and run / Even when I was seventeen. Fuck and run / Fuck and run / even when I was twelve.”
When Liz Phair released her debut Exile In Guyville on June 22, 1993, it rocked the male-centric indie rock (and really, rock in general) music world. A female songwriter singing openly about real relationship problems and the anxieties they bring with it? Unheard of at the time. It opened the door for female artists to actually share their feelings on sex, insecurities and commitment issues, previously rarely-touched so honestly among female rockers. A Chicago Tribune article by Mark Caro on the album and its 20th anniversary contests that it opened up the world for creative females in other mediums as well, stating that the show Girls would have been impossible in the pre-Phair art world.
This wouldn’t have been possible if the record didn’t sell or wasn’t critically acclaimed. But it was so great it happened to achieve both. To date it has sold 467,000 copies, which is no Siamese Dream (4.9 mil. copies) but it ain’t no slouch either. And the critics loved it. It was #1 in the Village Voice “Pazz and Jop” poll (beating out Siamese, In Utero and so many other greats), and was SPIN’s #1 album, back when SPIN knew what good music was.
The title and album were inspired by both Exile On Main Street and a song by Urge Overkill, as well as their vocalist Nash Kato. Certain songs were direct responses to Exile tracks (a bit of a reach, however), while Nash was Phair’s crush and therefore her muse.
The album opens with “6’1”” and starts a bit like standard alt-rock: overdriven guitar, head-bobbing drum beat and melodic bassline. Then Phair enters, with a voice lower and grittier than what most folks had been used to from a female vocalist. But things really get interesting on “Glory,” where we got the first taste of what made this album powerful: Phair’s lyrics and guitar style. Other than a little background synth/organ tone, the song is stripped back to it’s essence, like a demo. A handful of songs on this long tracklisting are just that: powerful spare arrangements, allowing the listener to focus on Phair’s unique vocals and great lyrics. “Girls! Girls! Girls!” is one of my favorites of these tunes. ”I get away / Almost everyday / With what the girls call / What the girls call / What the girls call / The girls call murder” is one of my favorite very-singable bits on the album.
Some of you will see her name and think she doesn’t deserve to be reviewed here, in retrospect or otherwise. But I think the true sign of a legendary punk rock record is this: does it still shock 20 years later? If “Flowers” doesn’t still make your jaw drop, you’ve spent way too much time on the internet, you pervert. I can only imagine a pubescent boy hearing that song for the first time and being both incredibly turned-on and terrified. From “I’ll be your blowjob queen.” to “I’ll fuck you ‘til your dick is blue” would have that kid going “holy shit!” And let’s get back to “Fuck and Run.” Despite the radio-unfriendly title, the song is simply an emo anthem from the other side of the gender coin. “I can feel it in my bones / I’m gonna spend my whole life alone.” We’ve all heard the boys bitch about how they can’t get a girl, but here’s 26-year-old Phair, lamenting about the lack of decent guys coming into her life. ”Whatever happened to a boyfriend / The kind of guy who tries to win you over / And whatever happened to a boyfriend / The kind of guy who makes love ‘cause he’s in it.” I’m sure thousands of girls related to this song like no other song out there at the time. Plus, the song is guitar, voice and two drum kits. No bass. So weird, so great. I contested on Facebook a while back that this is the best song to have the word “fuck” in the title. Deep use of the word, y’know?
My wife introduced me to this album way after the fact, maybe 2003-ish. I fell in love with its brutal honesty and sonic aesthetics. Discussing it on a ride back from O’Hare, she grouped it in with the 1990s slacker image you got from male songwriters like Billie Joe Armstrong and Kurt Cobain. There is something there, no doubt: she doesn’t give two fucks what other people think of her. She’s gonna say it all. Green Day sang about masturbation in a major hit the next year; at least Phair was actually getting some.
Then there is “Never Said,” a great tune but with a full-band arrangement and full backing vocals that point to where she was headed in her career. “Canary,” on the other hand, showcases piano echoing out into space, lending a brief break from the gritty guitar found throughout the rest of the album.
Exile in Guyville was lighting-in-a-bottle scenario. Phair was fresh on the scene. She had released cassettes under the name Girly Sounds, but it was the first proper release and first under her real name. Also, she had never played live when Matador signed her, not until after the album’s release. The brutal honesty, well-told stories and strange arrangements were a product of a girl who never had been shamed on stage before for singing things so openly, or for playing guitar a bit oddly. It was also done super-quick, something that with later records (with the exception of Whip-Smart) would be polished up before pressing. Phair is still a great songwriter, but unfortunately drifted slowly into the realm of dad-friendly radio-rock. But her first three records rock, and Exile is downright perfect.