The Pottymouth Returns: Liz Phair in Relationship Hell

Not to generalize too much, but ever since 1993’s Exile in Guyville , I’ve noticed that male and female fans of Liz Phair tend to experience her differently. That clever concept album’s lifelike songs about relationships-or actually, sex, particularly the meaningless and depressing kind-were free of euphemism, full of words that can’t be played on the radio and delivered with utterly deadpan aplomb. Single, smart, bitter women couldn’t believe how accurately Ms. Phair represented their reality, and they played the songs over and over, singing along.

But a lot of Ms. Phair’s male fans were just really into the fact that she talked dirty and gave songs blunt titles like “Fuck and Run” (never mind that it was from the point of view of a girl weary of an endless stream of one-night stands). Guys loved the postmodern round “Shatter” because she sang, over and over, “Every time I see your face, I get all wet between my legs … I’d like to be your blowjob queen.” Women thought: This highly intelligent, Oberlin-educated, attractive, strong woman can read my mind. Men thought: Hubba hubba! It’s sort of like the way some guys read Bust , the sex-positive ‘zine for feminists: as pornography. This no doubt contributed to her selection as cover girl for Rolling Stone ‘s 1994 ” Women in Rock” issue, wearing a fetching little slip dress and looking very cute.

The potty-mouthed lyrics continued with Ms. Phair’s second album Whip-Smart . On “Supernova,” the single, she sang of a man who could “fuck like a volcano,” and on “Chopsticks” described a partner whose preferred sexual position conveniently provided a clear view of the television set. Unfortunately, Ms. Phair sounded like she lacked enthusiasm for the entire exercise-not just the sex, the music-and the record sounded sluggish, rendering it pretty much unbearable. She didn’t release another album for four years.

In the interim, Liz married and had a baby, which obviously would alter the life material available to such a confessional songwriter. As often happens to married people, Ms. Phair’s just not as concerned with sex as she used to be. Or at least the songs on her long-delayed new album Whitechocolatespaceegg (Matador/Capitol) aren’t. A lot of them are about love, but not the sappy, Meg Ryan movie kind; Ms. Phair brings the same ambivalence and observant cynicism to love as she did to sex.

These songs aren’t as blunt as her old ones, but it’s not so easy to be blunt about something as ephemeral as love. On “Love Is Nothing,” a piece of lilting pop with a wonderfully cheesy bridge, she sings about how love is not what she thought it would be. “Go on Ahead” is a dead-on depiction of a troubled, yet still affectionate, relationship: “One night is lovely, the next is brutal.” “Johnny Feelgood” chronicles falling for a man, almost against her will: “I could take this in doses large enough to kill,” she sings. That song also has one of the most weirdly perfect lines of man-praise I’ve ever heard: “He’s got petals on the bed of his sweat sock drawer.” But Johnny’s not perfect: “I hate him all the time, but I still get up when he knocks me down.” (There was a Johnny on Guyville , too, “Johnny Sunshine”; that one left her bereft.)

On Whitechocolatespaceegg Ms. Phair relies less on the conversational, offhand lyrical style she’s used in the past, sometimes opting to reel off a litany of visual images, as on the title track, “Big Tall Man” (shades of suburban ennui), and “Ride,” which combines rewritten children’s rhymes with an apparition of Liz’s fly-covered corpse.

An exception to this new approach is the outstanding “What Makes You Happy,” a snapshot of a phone chat between a daughter and her mother about the daughter’s involvement with a divorced man. The song is given a glorious wall-of-sound production by Brad Wood, the man who thought to use sleigh bells on “Fuck and Run” when he produced Guyville and who also produced Whip-Smart . (Fortunately, Mr. Wood produced four other songs on the record; the seven produced by Scott Litt are more subdued, and the ones Ms. Phair produced are a tad boring.) “What Makes You Happy” has that oh-my-God-she’s-reading-my-mind feeling that the songs on Guyville had. Which is to say, it has the ring of truth, like it’s based on an actual conversation she had with her mom.

Mr. Wood also produced “Polyester Bride,” a slice of goose-bumpy cheese that chronicles another conversation, this time with a bartender. Liz doesn’t exactly ask for “one more for my baby and one more for the road,” but kind of. When she wonders whether she “should bother dating unfamous men,” the bartender answers with a shopping metaphor: “Do you want to find alligator cowboy boots they just put on sale?” Clearly, Liz’s point is that flawless men are as rare as perfect discounted footwear, and I see nothing wrong with that.

Not all the songs on the record deal with relationships, and on the whole, those are the tracks you’ll want to skip over. “Shitloads of Money” is the obligatory sellout song-the integrity-versus-money debate-and is kind of a bummer to listen to (not catchy, clichéd). The horrific “Baby Got Going” gave me bad flashbacks to James Taylor’s “Steamroller” with its dreaded train metaphors. And there’s no telling what the point of the bizarre “Uncle Alvarez” is. (Wasn’t he a character on The Munsters ? Never mind.) “Girls’ Room,” a fantasy about popular high school best friends gossiping, was more successful. It reminded me of Heathers .

Whitechocolatespaceegg isn’t a perfect record. It can’t be summed up in one sentence, the way Guyville could, but it’s Ms. Phair’s most complicated and evolved album so far. Maybe her listeners have stopped sleeping with scruffy Jon Spencer fans in the past five years also. If not, Liz Phair isn’t their woman anymore. They’ve got to be content with-God save them-Natalie Imbruglia and Jewel, who whine about being dumped while Liz kicked men to the curb. If that’s not regression, I don’t know what is.

The Pottymouth Returns: Liz Phair in Relationship Hell