The writing was on the wall — or at least on the album.
On 1998's Whitechocolatespaceegg, Liz Phair pretty much spelled out her future intentions on the penultimate track, "Sh--loads of Money": "It's nice to be liked, but it's better by far to get paid/ I know that most of the friends that I have don't really see it that way."
Fair enough, but when Phair teamed up with Avril Lavigne songwriters the Matrix and released the commercially minded Liz Phair in 2003, perhaps she shouldn't have been surprised that the record was critically lambasted and met with fan outrage and hostility.
Though Phair was once considered a national treasure in the world of indie rock for her 1993 cultural milestone Exile in Guyville, many music fans felt the slick Liz Phair was a betrayal of the highest order — as if Phair had gone over to the dark side (see "Liz Phair Wants Recognition For Being Cute And Deep").
But the 38-year-old contends that the critics were misguided when they lauded her for Guyville's so-called confessional songwriting. "I'm actually more honest and confessional in my material now," she said. "In my early [work] I was a lot more clever about disguising [the meanings] with metaphors, and I think that was really exciting to those brainiacs."
Conscious that her move toward poppier material generated much ill will, she's aware that she's damned no matter what she does — at least with those in the music press. "I think [critics] keep coming after me because I keep saying the same thing, but it's the truth, which is that I try not to make my music for critics," she said. "I tried writing 'Liz Phair' songs, and almost sickened myself because there's nothing really emotionally striking about them. I could write a million clever songs, but they wouldn't be honest."
Phair sees her artistic transition as much more natural and less premeditated, but is resigned to the fact that she's never going to be able to please anyone but herself. "I definitely thought about [2003's critical outrage] because it was so upsetting," she said. "But obviously I made the choice to continue doing co-songwriting that would be radio-friendly."
Initially conceived as a response to Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life — much like Guyville was a track-by-track rebuttal to the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St. — Phair's fifth album, Somebody's Miracle, isn't an admission of indie rock wrongdoing, nor is it the polished pose of her pop effort. Instead, Miracle is a less contentious LP that quietly bridges both worlds.
"I really try to make my music for me and for a release of whatever it is I need to write about," said Phair, noting that she abandoned the Key of Life concept halfway through. "As much as I thought about what everybody liked about my early work and got upset that it wasn't there, I decided that, in a funny way, nothing really changed about my songwriting. I just added these other elements which were like the tipping point. So on this record I put the singles lower in the track list."
Many assumed the singer's commercial makeover had a lot to do with her move to a major label, but Phair is quick to point out that her indie label contract was bought out by Capitol and she spent months trying to extricate herself from the album before she finally acquiesced. Even now, she has to battle to have her choice of single approved.
"I'm fighting for 'Somebody's Miracle,' she said of the title track, explaining the tune as a song about the admiration for people that can brave the tumultuous waters of love. "I'm old enough to have been in enough failed relationships where you have to come to accept your part in it, and that there's something wrong with you that keeps leading you into these relationships that don't work."
Having already unplugged for Miracle's first tour, Phair is looking to expand on the acoustic idea, mostly because one vital element of her studio presence seems to mysteriously disappear during her albums' recording sessions.
"I would like to make the next record acoustic," she said. "I'm obsessed with playing acoustic guitar. You know why that is? Every producer in the world takes my guitar off the damn record and I'm pretty freaking sick of it. I want my guitar parts back. I don't care if I can't play well, I want to hear them."