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.