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“On ‘Shane,” Liz Phair Takes Surrealism into Her Own Hands”

For having issued one of the most critically acclaimed rock albums by any woman of the ’90s, Liz Phair has kept a pretty low profile for the last 25 years. Really, though, I think she’s always been a touch shy and self-conscious. Don’t let the cover art nudity of Exile in Guyville and racy, raunchy lyrics fool you: she was always introverted, through and through, far more talented than lots of people probably realized.

A song like “Johnny Sunshine” will fully illustrate her extensive, unique skill on guitar, some of the techniques and habits of which seem to mirror PJ Harvey’s penchant for slipping into blues riffing as a toggle from radio rock rhythm guitar interface. (PJ Harvey is kind of a rival of Liz Phair’s, probably not out of any animosity but just that they were the two primary female solo alternative rockers with cult followings in the early ’90s.) Another track that will demonstrate her distinct, artistically disciplined take on guitar playing is “Shane,” which comes from her patchy but generally intriguing second album Whip-Smart (1994). 

Now, one thing I notice about this classic music from the ’90s is that it’s not TRYING to be stylistic. She’s basically just doing what Bob Dylan did and she knows it — sitting down with a guitar and belting out a folk tune, even one vaguely iconoclastic, as Dylan’s shtick might have dictated from time to time. I mean, she’s definitely not stabbing at hit single here, and even on the catchiest, most anthemic moments on Whip-Smart (“Go West”; the title track), the choruses in her songs seem organic and artistically rendered, rather than kitschy or self-mocking. She’s still giving girls something to grasp at who are growing up, in other words, individuals almost certainly inclined to full-album listens, at least if my sister circa 1996 is any indication.

But with “Shane,” we have a sort of ultimacy of what can be achieved with just acoustic guitar and vocals, in a rock song, in a sense. We’ve gone through the semantic narratives of Bob Dylan, the deep, rich melancholy of Neil Young and the spatial, geographic longing of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. Phair is in her own unique position, as a woman, and, as I note earlier, one who’s introverted and private, belying the spotlight-tramp veneer she uses to get herself on the map. She’s coy about her “Shane” boyfriend — we don’t ever get to know him other than in sparse patches on which she shines light, in the form of little snippets about his analytical exploits. 

Again, despite her bimbo shtick, she’s thoughtful. In this case, in particular, she’s scared, of what some ubiquitous mind-control mechanism might have to say about her lucid boyfriend who knows people at their core, to perhaps a dangerous extent, or an extent off-putting to the intelligentsia. So we wade through a tepid acoustic guitar bath for two-odd minutes, albeit one peppered with very interesting, intricate chord play, and arrive at a minute-and-a-half repetition of the lines “You gotta have fear in your heart”. 

This juxtaposition of elements and allocation of time frames makes the declaration anatomical: it’s meant as proportional to the extent to which Phair is actually scared of the world around her, and for the sake of her beau. 1994 was a very calamitous time in American history, wedged stoutly between the first Iraq war and the pair of bombings that came in Oklahoma City and the Olympics in Atlanta, 1996, respectively. Phair is making a statement by repeating the same line for a minute-and-a-half: this is really fu**ed up. She does so with only acoustic guitar and vocals, so her only recourse is an anatomical phenomenon, such as the one she administers, one which simultaneously makes the song less approachable for superficial radio-single-hunters and also toys with the listener’s unconscious with a surreal, dream-like lyrical foray.

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