Liz Phair: “Divorce Song”
I’m not really sure what people think of when they hear Liz Phair’s name mentioned these days — and then again, I’m not sure her name gets mentioned all that frequently now at all (certainly not enough). But for those who know a bit about her, there are a couple of possible versions of her that could be called to mind: the young, fearless, groundbreaking songwriter who made such a splash on the indie rock scene in the early ’90s, or the older Liz, possibly frustrated at the lack of commercial success despite all the previous critical raves, who hired on the same production team, The Matrix, that worked with Avril Lavigne and created a slick, mainstream pop-rock album that alienated a good portion of her early fans.
For fans of her early albums, like myself, it’s hard not to think of both phases, but I’ve never let her bewildering attempt to go slickly commercial sway me from loving all the albums that came before. Exile in Guyville and Whip-Smart are two of the best albums of the ’90s (particularly Guyville), and there’s nothing that will change that for me. Exile in Guyville, her debut album released in 1993, was reputedly a song-for-song “reply” to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., but I’ve never bothered trying to match up the songs and subject matter. Guyville stands easily on its own merits as a relentlessly honest and unabashed album, made all the more “real” by Phair’s somewhat flat singing voice. That voice was part of the album’s charm, and worked in favor of the intensity of the songs.
The best moment on the album for me is “Divorce Song,” in which the narrator recounts with bewilderment some of the crucial moments that brought her marriage to the brink of divorce. There’s no attempt to pretty it up for the sake of the song — it’s like reading something right out of Phair’s diary. (Just as a matter of clarification, Phair was not in fact married or divorced prior to writing the song — although you’d never know that based on the song.) She nails the deep hurt experienced as a relationship falls apart:
But when you said that I wasn’t worth talking to
I had to take your word on that
But if you’d known how that would sound to me
You would have taken it back
And boxed it up and buried it in the ground
Burned it up and thrown it away.
It’s a fantastic song lyrically and musically, and for anyone who has gone through any type of painful breakup, the song resonates.
**WARNING: There’s a line of the song that isn’t really suitable for playing at work or around kids. Just thought you might want to know if you haven’t heard the song before . . .