Sometimes the music that endures is the music a musician writes early in their career, when they’ve lived inside a bubble free from fans and critical expectations. Songwriter Liz Phair made a huge splash in 1993 with her debut album Exile in Guyville. The album spawned a devoted following and, thankfully, its own 33 1/3 book. Twenty-five years later, Phair is rereleasing Guyville alongside her early home recordings.
For Esquire, Phair-fan Tyler Coates sees her play at Chicago’s legendary Empty Bottle, examines his own fandom, and talks with Phair about creativity, authority, and those early years before, as she put it, “I had a public awareness of what I represented to other people. There’s me, and then there’s Liz Phair.”
The dueling identities—the public and the private—are tough to pull apart for your average listener. Most of Phair’s work feels brutally honest and unfiltered; Guyville, released when she was 26, remains notorious for its frankness. She sang about messy hookups on “Fuck and Run,” the inevitability of a breakup on “Divorce Song,” bemoaned the behavior of obnoxious men on “Johnny Sunshine” and “Help Me Mary,” and growled the declaration “I want to be your blowjob queen” on “Flower.” When Phair sang her lyrics, you believed they were her truth. That’s never more powerful than on the Girly Sound recordings, which are playful and intimately confessional.
The personal nature of her work is, naturally, what has drawn listeners to Guyville for the last 25 years—and why the retrospective to the album and its origins have been so rewarding for both the singer-songwriter and her fans. For so many, the album is formative. Its frank lyrics, while infamous, are also incredibly empowering.