The point of a first single from a new album is both an announcement and a promise. An announcement, of course, that “I’m here” or “I’m back,” and a promise that this first taste is not a bait and switch. You’re going to love what comes next. It is my opinion that over the past decade, as the singles market has again dominated over the institution of the album, intuiting those deliverables from a single has been made far more difficult.
So I was hesitant about “Spanish Doors,” the first single from Liz Phair’s latest album, Soberish. It was a terrific song, one that brought me back to those heady early days when she was on the Matador Records label. At the same time, her last full album did nothing for me. I see no benefit in going deeper into that. My point is that while I was excited about this new album cycle, I was suspicious as well.
Spoiler: I like the album.
Soberish finds Phair tunefully mixing her keen pop sensibilities with the threads of acidic observation that made her such a lightning rod in the 1990s. Some of it plays into exactly what you expect – clearly, when she offers a song called “Bad Kitty,” you can be pretty certain she’s not singing about a literal feline. But it is true: “Spanish Doors” accurately signaled something good was on the horizon.
A lot of people are going to lay the overall success of the record at the feet of her collaborator Brad Wood, with whom she created some of those earlier efforts. This is mostly a two-person effort with Phair singing and playing guitar while Wood built all the rest, but that’s not a fair reading. I think that these songs, if left as bare demos, would still be very good tracks. Working again with someone I’m sure she trusts has elevated them, but didn’t “make” them.
One thing comes through when you hear Phair firing on all cylinders here. Much of what makes of pop music right now, at least a segment of it, owes a debt to Phair. While quite far from the country-folk of recent Taylor Swift or the profane high-drama cinema of Lana Del Rey, Phair blazed the trail that allowed them license to do what they wanted to do. It was, as of late, a freedom Liz seemed to deny herself, despite those efforts being ostensibly “whatever the hell ‘I’ wanted to do.”
Soberish is a spiky record with occasionally controversial moments. “Hey Lou” is prone to raise eyebrows for it’s long, hard look at an icon, removed from starstruck loyalties. Yet this record finds its singer/songwriter owning the pride-of-place she deserves, and that’s a very good thing.
An aside: Phair has landed on the Chrysalis record label. That might not seem significant to most, but remember that Chrysalis was the home of Debbie Harry/Blondie, Pat Benatar, and many more back in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s a fit that seems natural and correct.