Exiled, Again

In June, ATO records will release a special 15th Anniversary edition of Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville. Originally conceived as a response to The Rolling Stones' Exile on Mainstreet, Phair's Exile became something of a classic in its own right.

Listen to "Divorce Song" from the anniversary edition:



In 1993 I moved to Olympia, Washington to attend college. The Northwest was full of incendiary bands in the early 1990s. Some of the sounds were heard around the globe, others remained stubbornly underground, festering and smoldering, creating an incognito hysteria and inspiring offshoots. There was twee and lo-fi, angular post-punk, emo, metal, riot grrl, noise—most of it eager, breathless and frenzied. For months, I rarely saw or listened to a world outside of Olympia. If I wanted to see bands from London or DC, New York or LA, they would play in basements and be sucked into the smallness of the town, if only for a night. Olympia was part of a series of remote satellites sending signals back and forth, sharing information and secrets.

It was within this context, this feeling that everything important had a line drawn around it and that my town was inside that imaginary border, that I first heard Liz Phair. She crashed through the insularity, with no clear alliance to one music scene, writing from the periphery of her own. I was at a friend's house, he was making us dinner and he put on the album. The fact that I remember any details at all about what my friend was cooking, what we wore, the layout of this small apartment—those memories only exist because of Exile in Guyville. Otherwise, it would have been just another night. I was 19.

The first thing I noticed about Liz Phair was the voice. She wasn't screaming, she wasn't being cloying, she wasn't an amazing singer, but there was something serious about the vocals, something deadly. Part of it was the flatness; the strange deadpan delivery, like someone is singing on their back, like they woke up one night and decided they'd had enough and so they made an album. But the songs weren't victim anthems just like they weren't merely come-ons; they spoke of the fine lines between power and powerlessness, autonomy and isolation, they depicted epiphanies and the subsequent letdowns. The album was a journey vacillating between interior and exterior landscapes, the lyrics evoking halcyon moments always on the verge of implosion, either by the author's own hand or by someone they loved. And the album was drenched in desire, of wanting and of wanting out.

Exile in Guyville was a brave and gutsy album and Liz Phair made herself an island out of it. Some critics and fans dove in to the waters, swimming to save her, to woo her, to worship her, while others hung her out to dry. Maybe it was the sheer audacity of the album, coming at a time when many indie music statements—particularly those being made by women—were more strident, they clawed out a space with volume and rebellion The sphere Phair created was murkier, it was inviting but also treacherous.

I don't know if it was the weight of the endeavor, or the fact that those of us over a certain age couldn't escape this album if we tried, but Exile in Guyville's presence is still felt after all these years. I admit to not having followed Phair much since the mid 90s, but listening to Exile again, I think it just might qualify as a monster of rock.



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What is also cool about Liz Phair is that she influenced a chain of musicians, but nobody I can think of has that "Liz Phair sound." It seems indirect but present. My music has been compared to hers a few times by reviewers, but I never even knew about Liz Phair in my formative writing stages. She's a good one.

Sent by JJ Hellgate | 3:14 PM | 4-30-2008

Girl, you can write.

Sent by joe | 4:10 PM | 4-30-2008

Thanks to B, Guy, and Chriso for politely pointing out that it's "Guyville" not "Guysville". Duh! That was a "change all" command gone awry. And I do have an editor, I swear!

Sent by Carrie Brownstein | 5:11 PM | 4-30-2008

This was maybe one of my most formative albums ever--it came out my first year of college--and perhaps the only one from that time in my life that I can a) still listen to all the way through and b) sing every word and c) still totally feel it. Your post made me feel it too. Good one, CB! Paragraph four just nails it.

Sent by CJ | 6:05 PM | 4-30-2008

this is my favorite album of all time! i bought this in 1999, my freshman year of high school. it is the main reason that i started playing the guitar.

Sent by RZ | 6:46 PM | 4-30-2008

Great great record. The early 90s really were an incredibly exciting time for music made by women, with PJ, Liz Phair, Hole and dozens of others. Then SK came around and blew them all away.

Sent by Rick | 8:36 PM | 4-30-2008

This album gives me so much with every listen: insight into the mind of a very very cool woman, ballsy lyrics, interesting melodies, wiiiiild harmonica solos, a good time... I love it. Easily in my top three of all time. Just such a purely AWESOME listen. Every time I hear it I feel like writing a huge dissertation on it so I better cut this off right now.

Sent by Joe Gallll | 9:11 PM | 4-30-2008

I feel like a jackass for saying this, but I really think Liz Phair is a hack. I thought she was a hack then, and I think she's especially a hack now.

Sent by Nick L. | 11:04 PM | 4-30-2008

the concept of this blog was kind of heaven to me. exile in guyville is one of my favorite albums to this very day. i couldn't have written anything better if i tried.


Sent by a. l??ger | 11:32 PM | 4-30-2008

1993, best year ever? Debut, Exile in Guyville, Last Splash, Rid Of Me, Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, In Utero, Siamese Dream, Enter The Wu Tang, Anodyne, Painful, Frank Black, etc, etc, etc.

Sent by erik | 12:13 AM | 5-1-2008

It's a fine, fine album. I still can't get my head around it but that review went some way to helping. "Whip-Smart" also had some tremendous songs on it ('Jealousy', for example.)

Sent by Claire | 1:14 AM | 5-1-2008

A 1st impression's that Laura Viers's taken up the slack of late

her voice's similar (w/o being ironic or flat), tho' this is a passing sense

Viers has such a talent that is so much her own.

Liz sells records now that remind me of Dennis Hopper making a moive that spurred his young son to ask why he was involved in such schlock. "To buy you shoes", came the reply. To which came back: "I don't need shoes that bad, dad!"

Sent by fizz-a-pin! | 5:02 AM | 5-1-2008

I love posts like this. It is like being zipped back in time to a specific day or month for me. There were definitely some great releases in 93 and 94 and Exile in Guyville was definitely one of them. Great post Carrie!

Sent by ryan | 7:31 AM | 5-1-2008

This album sums up my high school years between the small ski resort town I left, the city and beach I arrived at, and the road trip that got me between the two. I remember anyone in high school that listened to it was "alternative" yet somehow also cool for it.

Very well written!!!

Sent by KK | 8:34 AM | 5-1-2008

in 1993, I was 14. I can't think of a better time to be 14, musically. (Except for 1968, possibly). I would say a third of my music collection is still from that '93-95 period, and Guyville is an album that has permanent residence on my Mp3 player.

Sent by Hannah | 12:46 PM | 5-1-2008

YES, exactly. your description is perfect. only i was 15 & felt so lucky i had her influence as i awkwardly tried to figure out what it meant to be a woman, etc etc. i love that they're re-releasing one of my alltime favorite classic albums ever. thanks for this post.

Sent by sarah | 1:35 PM | 5-1-2008

When this album came out I was in high school and I remember buying it completely unheard based on a segment Liz Phair did on MTV News with Tabitha Stevens.

Sent by Peg | 1:37 PM | 5-1-2008

I was 17 in 1993 and this album was one of my favourites then, and is still one of my favourites now. I'd say it's in my Top 5 of all time. It's a classic...still totally listenable and it doesn't sound dated at all.

Sent by Sharon | 1:48 PM | 5-1-2008

Ah, Exile in Guyville. One of my favorite albums ever. You know when you do things like try and come up with lists that various albums show up on for whatever reason? Exile shows up on all of mine. It never sounds old. It always sounds good.

Liz's post Exile work is very uneven--Whipsmart is quite good, Space Egg is not as much, but still worth having. The next couple kind of make me want to cry sometimes. And not in a good way. But none of that makes Exile any less good.

Sent by Peter | 3:50 PM | 5-1-2008

this album is why I keep shaking my head at her later stuff. I think maybe I'm just not smart enough to get what she's trying to do by imitating teen pop...but it's also that I'll always know she is capable of writing very kick-butt, smart, simple rock songs that leave you thinking, "which one of these people am I?" I had just gotten this cd when it was stolen from my car in Portland...it took me less than a day to repurchase it.

24 in '93. Perfection.

Sent by Rick | 4:23 PM | 5-1-2008

I bought exile in guyville the same day I bought Pearl Jam Vs. Both very iconic records from that time. Most of my friends didn't share my love of ms phair at the time. I was very much alone in my fandom. But both Exile and Whipsmart are timeless classics. No one has picked that torch.

Sent by robb agrayspace | 6:26 PM | 5-1-2008

I always wanted this album. For some stupid reason 15 year-old self never bought it. I will be rushing out to my local record store to get the re-issue.

You really aren't missing anything with Liz Phair's past 2 records.

Sent by Sommer | 7:37 PM | 5-1-2008

i just love when someone uses the word "strident" to describe women.

Sent by sue Dockstader | 8:24 PM | 5-1-2008

Funny enough, I was re-living my adolescence earlier this week and listening to Exile in Guyville was part of it. I was ten when the album first came out. Thank God for college radio in my teens. Despite it being slightly dated by the time I came around to it, I couldn't help feeling that I was stumbling upon something exciting and new.

It still feels the same fifteen years later. Liz Phair was my first introduction into the world of indie and alternative rock. I won't criticize her for her more recent pop endeavors, but I will say I appreciate the less adorned and raw honesty of Exile. It set the bar for my early standards of music.

Sent by Jennifer | 10:56 PM | 5-1-2008

Exile is definitely a favorite of mine. And Divorce Song is what hooked me. I listened to this album a bit when it came out, but it really grabbed me the same summer I was grabbed by Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out. 1998. Best summer of my life!

PS. You are definitely an amazingly eloquent writer.

Sent by Susan | 12:28 PM | 5-2-2008

aww yeah. i was 20 in 1993.
an it was these songs that i made out to, broke up to, made up to, broke down to, went on road trips with, studied for finals to.
right on for music like that

Sent by kate | 7:28 PM | 5-3-2008

I was living in Madison, Wisc. at the time. Liz Phair was playing across the street from where I had a date with a nursing student (remember the days when personals were all done by telephone or letters?) I had recently really come out and was nervous as heck. I had no idea who Liz Phair was at the time, but my date did, and he said I should get the album. So I did. There were no more dates with him, but I had 15 years with this wonderful album.

Sent by Michael | 8:30 PM | 5-3-2008

Woah, that's an awesome song. I recognize part of the lyrics from an answer Corin Tucker gave in an interview by Miranda July. I've had Exile in Guyville downloaded for awhile but never listened. I suppose now I'll start.

Sent by Jaime | 2:39 PM | 5-4-2008

God, I loved exile. It was an important record at an awkward time in my life. I don't know how I came across it or what compelled me to buy it (it wasn't a new album when I bought it, I believe it was around '97 or '98 when I first discovered exile). The frankness scared the hell out of me as a young teen. I didn't quite understand the songs then, but eventually I became obsessed. I could only listen to a couple of songs in the beginning, because the rest of them made me so uncomfortable. I listened to it in small pieces, sort of inoculating myself little by little to the point where I could listen to the entire album and enjoy it (though I have to say, to this day I have trouble listening to "Flower"). Every time I listen to it, I'm reminded of early high school/late middle school...listening to my discman, walking home from school. It's such a memory album, for me.

Sent by Enid | 1:36 AM | 5-5-2008

Great entry. I agree with the others, great writing. It captures Liz and the emotions she elicits so very well.

I had heard of Liz, but had none of her music until my then boyfriend sent me off to college with a Liz mix tape and I later found the demos. That wasn't long after the release of Whipsmart. My life has never been the same.

I agree with the others that you haven't missed much with the past few albums. I insist on referring the self-titled album the "Sold My Soul to Capitol" album.

I also agree with fizz-a-pin's Hopper/shoe comment. Oh how true!

I'm looking forward to the rerelease, but I know that many of the Liz Phair fans I surrounded myself with no longer consider themselves fans.

Oh and that boyfriend who introduced me to Liz (and who now falls into the former fan category) and I got married in 1999. We played Divorce Song at our wedding. :-)

Sent by Hyphen | 2:27 PM | 5-8-2008

Audacious, yes. On key, no. And her flatness is something up with which I will not put.

Sent by Jeremy Shatan | 2:53 PM | 5-13-2008

Very insightful, Carrie.
A few commenters bring up the oft-repeated concept that the later Liz Phair records feature her trying to sound like a teenage pop star. While I won't vouch for the quality of her last few records on their own merit, don't you think it seems clear that someone like Avril Lavigne is trying to sound like Liz Phair, and not the other way around? I don't think Liz gets enough credit for her influence on mainstream pop.

Sent by Caryn | 6:19 PM | 5-13-2008

"Everything (Between Us) off of her latest album is fantastic. The rest can really be disregarded though. I am willing to wade through mud to find gems like this.

Sent by Dervin | 7:58 PM | 5-13-2008

I agree, Exile is an amazing album, AAA

however, I can STILL love Madonna!


Sent by Patti | 2:43 PM | 5-15-2008

I think you're giving Avril Lavigne a bit too much credit. I seriously doubt that Lavigne was even aware of Phair's existence. Here is a quote from Liz:
""I was walking around Manhattan Beach and I heard ["Complicated"] coming out of a car really loud," Phair says. "It was at a stop light so I got to hear a fair bit of the song and I was completely in appreciation of it. It hit me hard -- I liked her voice, I liked what she was saying, I liked the song. I thought it was a fantastically written song and I was even kind of jealous."

Looking forward to the Guyville reissue and Liz's next album.

Sent by holden | 5:59 PM | 5-17-2008

EIG is perfect. Her voice (then) was perfect and often copied. Her guitar playing is surprisingly complex. I love how the album is not one thing. It's got some psychedelia (Gunshy) and some slowcore (Shatter) and weird spoken language stuff (Flower). Then there is an eerie piano piece (Canary). I can go on and on. The album stands the test of time. I want to believe Liz can do something else that reaches this kind of magnitude but I don't think so. The album is a result of so many factors going for her and against her at the time. She rebelled and she won. EIG-the prize.

Sent by meowcat | 5:22 PM | 5-19-2008

i have fond memories of driving from austin to d.c. with only a cassette with guyville on one side / whipsmart on the other. and no brakes. in recent years, a very good friend (who turned me on to phair) has kinda soured some of this nostalgia--claims that phair was just the singer on records written by some dude, and that she wasn't connected to the lyrical content. i'd love for someone to say it isn't so.

Sent by coach | 4:22 PM | 5-20-2008

I didn't hear Liz Phair's music until I was 40, and I just love it. Not just "Exile"; all of it. I, a lifelong Deadhead and 30 year guitarist, it seemed a very unlikely match. She and I are about the same age, and I can empathize with some of the maturation she's gone through throughout her career. If you listen to the NPR interview from 2005, had she continued to spew the emotions of a 23-year-old, it would have been an absolute fake. Time, relationships and children change everything about you. Like Dylan, she wrote and sings her current feelings; the audience can keep up if they want.
I especially like the description of her voice as someone "singing on their back". I've done that as well, half awake, with an out-of-tune guitar; but I'm no longer 23 either.

Sent by tbkblues | 5:43 PM | 5-21-2008

to coach - Phair wrote all the lyrics and guitar parts on her early work, trust me. There's countless demos, etc, if you look it's not hard to find that kind of thing out.

Exile is an amazing record. While I personally prefer her sophomore effort, Whip-Smart, Exile is perhaps the album that speaks to the most people. (As for her later work, her third album, whitechocolatespaceegg, was a bit polished for my liking but the songwriting was strong as ever. The later two lacked good production and the songwriting slumped, but there was an EP released in between that surprisingly contained some of her best work to date, entitled 'comeandgetit', which is worth searching online.)

Sent by Erin | 11:04 PM | 5-26-2008

This is the best review I have ever read on EIG... bravo!

Sent by Susan Anderson | 4:25 PM | 6-23-2008

Oh Carrie, how you pegged it just right..having revisited this album with the reissue, it's reaffirms everything my 16 year old mind thought at the time - that regardless of what Liz might pander to in the future - she will remain an insane force of clarity & inspiration for any girl smart enough to go there...ditto SK!!!

Sent by Jesse | 6:34 AM | 7-12-2008