Who knew that all Liz Phair ever wanted was to be a pop star? Surely, her debut, Exile in Guyville, with its cinematic lo-fi production and frankness, never suggested as much, nor did its cleaner sequel, Whip-Smart, even if her appearance in negligee on the cover of Rolling Stone did imply she wanted a wider audience. In retrospect, perhaps the streamlined surfaces of Whitechocolatespaceegg were a bid for the big time, but it was undercut by songs of motherhood, marriage, and remnants of her time as an indie queen. All of that is a distant memory on her long-delayed eponymous fourth album, where she makes a long-delayed stab at superstardom, glamming herself up like a Maxim MILF of the Month and inexplicably pitching herself somewhere between Sheryl Crow and Avril Lavigne, on one side working with Michael Penn and adult alternative singer/songwriter Pete Yorn and on the other hooking up with 2003's hitmakers du jour the Matrix (not wanting to lose her aging core audience, she began her support tour for the album opening for the thirty-something darlings of the early 2000s, the Flaming Lips, even if her new music was a far cry from indie). As "Extraordinary" starts the album with a heavy guitar downstroke, it's clear that Liz Phair has piled nearly all her chips on making it as a pop act, delivering music that not just fits comfortably with Lavigne's, but follows her sounds and stance, right down to the insipid lyrics. This, to say the least, is disarming, not just to die-hard fans of Exile who could never have dreamed that, of all the directions she could have gone, she chose this, but because such sentiments sound painfully trite coming from a 36-year-old woman. Throughout the album, these sparkly banalities come fast and furious, sometimes interrupted by something a little deeper, sometimes sounding catchy enough to sound pleasant in passing if you overlook both the lyrics and the fact that they're written by Phair, who used to be one of the sharpest writers in rock.
There's nothing wrong with a change of pace, but there's a startling lack of depth in either the words, which are entirely too literal, or the music, whose hooks are at once too obvious and not ingratiating enough. Then, there's the weird realization that Phair has so little to say on Liz Phair. While this very well could be her most directly confessional album -- nearly every song is in the first person, with many songs drawing parallels to her circulated life story -- there's no insight here, particularly when compared to, yes, her earlier work. It's not just that "The Divorce Song" details a messy breakup better than either of the divorce songs here (although that's an important, telling truth), it's that the parenting song is confused and condescending, it's that the endless songs about sleeping with twenty-something guys are littered with ridiculous lyrics ("I'm starting to think young guys rule," "I want to play Xbox on your floor"), and it's that she can't manage to write either a funny or sexy ode to her underwear on "Favorite." It's also that toward the end of this deliberate bid for the mainstream, she tosses in the embarrassingly "naughty" "HWC," where she extols the virtues of semen in the hair and on the skin ("Without you I'm just another Dorian Grey"); sure, it might seemingly break taboos, but what good is explicitness if it is only smarmy, with none of the humor or candor of "Flower" or "Glory." Yes, let's not compare a new record to an LP that's ten years old (although she invites those comparisons with a song like "HWC"), but Exile in Guyville has such a lasting impact, it's impossible to shake its memory when hearing her other, newer works. Liz Phair is running away from that shadow on Liz Phair, creating a record that is pretty much the polar opposite of that album, a shiny bright affair that wants nothing more than to be taken as a confection, even when it tries to dig deeper. It may be that Phair no longer has much to say -- three albums after Exile, that's looking more like an anomaly in her catalog -- but even so, the clothing and trappings of mainstream pop don't fit her well, and Liz Phair is a fascinatingly awkward, clumsy album.