It sometimes seems that Liz Phair has spent half her career running away from her strengths as an artist. Her first album, 1993's Exile in Guyville, was a near-perfect debut, showcasing a songwriter with a thoroughly original style and scathing insights into relationships. It's also cast a shadow over everything she's done since. For the last decade, Phair has been alternately trying to approximate what made Guyville so special and rebelling against it. Her 2003 effort, Liz Phair, was one of those attempts at rebellion. The result was a slick, airbrushed record that pandered to contemporary hit radio, played up Phair's sexy bad-girl image, and dismissed virtually all of the psychological and musical complexity that made her songs and performances so entrancing in the first place.
Her new album, Somebody's Miracle (Capitol), is something of a retrenchment, one part taut songwriting and two parts radio-formula-retreading mush. The production that frames Phair's inalienable gifts as a melodist is the kind of lavish, high-budget, post-Eagles rock that she's gravitated toward for the last decade, and this time it mostly works. (Too bad she's still trying to sing like Sheryl Crow. With her unavoidably thin, girlish voice, Phair doesn't have the chops for it.) The album's musical high point, "Count On My Love,"has an arrangement that Journey or Pat Benatar would've coveted in the '80s, complete with a hyperdramatic bridge and breakdown.
The problem with this song, as with so many others here, is its dreadfully dopey lyrics. "You can count on my love/ With me you'll feel protected/ And you'll never be rejected/ Count on my love," Phair emotes. If this doesn't strike you as Phair talking down to her audience, compare it with, say, the run-on blurt that opened Guyville: "I bet you fall in bed too easily with the beautiful girls who are shyly brave and you sell yourself as a man to save but all the money in the world is not enough." That's a great line, and it gets better and stranger the longer you look at it: "Shyly brave"? What's that? "A man to save" following "sell yourself"—are we talking about an emotional rescue or dirty money? And who's this "I," and what exactly does she want from "you"?
What practically everybody missed about Phair's early records was how much of the emotional depth of her lyrics derived from her penchant for assuming characters—she liked playing the "Is it me or isn't it?" game, and she also liked playing the "This is so not me" game. (Guyville's devastating "Divorce Song," for example, was recorded before Phair was married; if she'd released it after her divorce, everyone would have heard the song as autobiographical self-expression.) In her way, she was as much of a chameleon as the early David Bowie—a theatrical songwriter who paid attention to the details that made her personae believable.
On Somebody's Miracle, Phair is still trying on roles. A couple of the songs have characters who go so far as to mention that they're men: "I wanna live that life when I could say people had faith in me/ I still see that guy in my memory," notes the alcoholic narrator of "Table for One." Another male persona has disappeared from the new album—twice over. Advance review copies of Somebody's Miracle included a pumped-up I-hate-my-job rocker called "Can't Get Out of What I'm Into" a song that dates back to Phair's pre-Guyville demo tapes. The Miracle version's last verse begins, "The things I have to do would make a slut blush blue/ But I can't get out of what I'm into/ I figure two more years and I'll go back to school/ But I can't get out of what I'm into." On the ancient demo tape, the song had the title "Gigolo," and the line ran, "I figure two more years and I'll go back to queers"—which changes the whole meaning of the song. It's understandable that Phair would back off from the original slur, but the change has also made the song less theatrical (and funny) and easier to interpret as an autobiographical plaint about being sick of the music business. (When she wrote it, she wasn't even in the music business.)
In any case, "Can't Get Out ... " is gone from the album now, banished to iTunes bonus-track status. In its place is a dire ballad called "Closer To You," on which Phair intones moon-June-spoon rhymes like, "What you've got in your heart is enough for me to start/ Givin' up holes in my soul, I don't need to rock and roll." It's not just banal, it's nonspecific—an attempt to be universal that ends up being merely vague. Even worse is the lighters-in-the-air single, "Everything to Me," a plea to an inattentive lover: "Do you really know me at all?/ Would you take the time to catch me if I fall?" In case he doesn't notice that he and Phair are "left with nothing but a shadow of a doubt," she hauls in an enormous string section and does her best impression of Shania Twain hurling the Ten Commandments from the mountaintop. Phair's complaints were a lot more effective back when she was muttering that she wanted "all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas."
Still, there are a couple of smart, cutting songs here. "Leap of Innocence," despite its non sequiturial hook ("I wanna make a leap of innocence to you"), has Phair noting how a love affair's social context curdled—"I had so many friends in rehab/ A couple who practically died"—and then offhandedly half-swallowing the crucial detail that "my mistake was being already married."
"Why I Lie" is even better, a nonapology apology that's yanked along by an inside-out variation on the "Brown Sugar" riff. "If you ask me why I hurt you, I don't understand it/ It's a special combination, predatory instinct and simple ill will," Phair snaps, and follows it with a bit that nobody else could get away with as a chorus: "I would give some thought to it if I thought that it might do me"—here a breath, and then at the very bottom of her range—"some good." (When she gets back to the chorus later on, she precedes it with a venom-dripping "whoa, mama.") As a song and a performance, it's worthy of Guyville. That's not what she's aspiring to any more, but it's the best thing anyone could say about her work anyway.