Liz Phair's 'Soberish' Is Complete Indie Pop Chaos

BY Daniel SylvesterPublished Jun 3, 2021

Although Liz Phair preceded her latest LP with three of indie rock's most-maligned albums, the Chicago artist has afforded herself so much early-career goodwill that listeners will still tune in to Soberish, her seventh record and first in over a decade.

But it's Phair's level of undying buoyancy that makes Soberish such a divided listen. Produced by Brad Wood — who recorded her critically-acclaimed debut, Exile in Guyville, and beloved follow-up, Whip-Smart — Phair's latest LP could be looked at as a nod to her past and an attempt to recapture some of the early magic that defined her career. But as songs like the saccharine soft rock crooner "The Game" and the personality-drenched pop ode "Ba Ba Ba" prove, Phair is much too stubborn to recreate her glory days wholesale.

Unfortunately, much of this 13-track LP stands as complete indie pop chaos, as Phair and Wood go into overkill mode, injecting far too many ideas into songs that show major potential at their root. Album opener "Spanish Doors" takes strong verses and a driving rhythm and drenches it with electronic beats, vocal effects, and layered chorus — ostensibly turning it into a muddled mess. Melodic and fun early single "Good Side" works because Phair allows the song's chorus to stay simple and largely genuine.

Despite numbers like the wonderfully moody electronic ballad "In There" and the vulnerable acoustic confession "Sheridan Road," so much of the album simply clashes with itself. Phair's refusal to trust her instincts often results in goofy Weezer-esque tracks like the lyrically bereft "Hey Lou" and the embarrassing "Bad Kitty," a song about her cat that comes off so juvenile and slothful that it wouldn't feel out of place on her 2010 disaster, Funstyle.

But as the album enters its second half, where Phair seems to bury tracks she deems "not single-worthy," there's actually much to like. "Soul Sucker" is an electric piano groove that comes off incredibly memorable, while "Dosage" finds her delivering a responsive ballad overtop of a stripped-down bed of cello and sparse beats.

Phair is at her best when she confidently picks a lane. Soberish is uneven because of her indecision, but it's still her best album since 1998's Whitechocolatespaceegg. And this is precisely why her most optimistic fans will eat it right up.
(BMG Chrysalis), (Chrysalis)

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