Soberish is a great title and a classic little Liz Phair bit of wordplay: its meaning is clear, it has a touch of playfulness to it, yet it also suggests hidden and sinister depths that are lurking not far beneath the surface fun.
Such a description is also applicable to Liz Phair’s music, which has always had a surface sheen of fun, glisteningly polished by her knack for charming hooks (that long pre-dates the supposed “commercial phase” of the 2003 self-titled album), yet with troubling and often alarming undercurrents. The murkiness of Exile in Guyville’s production was not just a homage to/pisstake of Exile on Main Street, it represented a primordial swamp of submerged desires from which Liz Phair emerged remarkably fully formed, boasting about fucking and running and being a blowjob queen. Listening to that album is like watching Luke Skywalker on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back: witnessing a hero you instinctively root for truly find themselves in the swamp that represents their subconscious.
When the fogs cleared and Liz Phair moved on to cleaner, more pristine pastures – the sparkly production and more emphatic pop hooks of Whitechocolatespaceegg and Liz Phair – she got heavily criticised for it and lost a lot of her “indie cred”. But you didn’t have to listen hard to those albums to realise that she was still a fully formed singer-songwriter, that her emergence from those swampy origins hadn’t diluted her identity one bit. Take the extraordinary “Ride”, for instance, on Whitechocolatespaceegg, or “Little Digger” or “H.W.C.” on Liz Phair, and you can hear the same brutally direct, emotionally astute yet challenging artist that stood tall on her debut. Plus, those songs fucking rock.
People disagree on when and how, but most do accept that Liz Phair eventually went into creative decline, culminating in 2010’s little loved Funstyle, and the 11 year gap before this latest one, which was extended a little because of the pandemic.
It reunites Phair with Brad Wood, who was the producer on Exile in Guyville, but don’t let that lead you to suspect that that means a return to the primordial swamp-style production. The production on Soberish is clean as a whistle, really much closer to the glamorous sheen of Whitechocolatespaceegg and Liz Phair than the mysterious murk of Exile. The songs all sound carefully planned, arranged, and tweaked for accessibility, with instrumentation that never goes too wild, beyond the odd synth or violin flourish here and there. It settles quickly into a comfortable midtempo groove, maintained by a stiff rhythm section.
A little too comfortable, a little too stiff. Except for the opener, “Spanish Doors”, and the penultimate track “Bad Kitty”, nothing really leaps out and demands to be listened to, insists on being reckoned with. You could easily put Soberish on in the background and forget that it was there, which is hard-to-impossible to say about any other Liz Phair album.
Most disappointing of all though is the lack of spark in the songwriting. After all, it takes the music video to make it really clear that “Hey Lou” is about Lou Reed – beyond a mention of Warhol and his wife’s “O Superman”, the lyrics could really be about any old asshole. Whilst there are lines here and there across the album that stick, especially the ones tinged with genuine-seeming anxiety such as “I meant to be sober/But the bar’s so inviting”, there are too many others that are simply banal, such as “My heart is a lonely street/When you’re far away”.
There was great potential for an album about a middle-aged female rock star’s lifestyle here. We hear so much less about female than male rock star’s lives, after all. Liz Phair’s wit and dynamism could truly light up any topic, when she’s on; but to my ears, on Soberish, she isn’t quite.
The album is certainly pleasant, and it does have some hooks that get their claws into you after multiple listens. But ultimately, the midtempo chug and slightly limp songwriting of Soberish doesn’t lead to a classic to match Exile, Whitechocolatespaceegg or Liz Phair. Those last two albums, and in fact all of her music, is “pleasant” in some form or another. But from great artists we expect more.