Liz Phair recently told Variety that you can go home again, only things progress and people change. That was a great way to describe her first new album in more than a decade, the fresh-but-comfortable Soberish.
It’s appropriately clever, honest, a bit wry and full of hooks. When the world is seemingly traveling back in time to the ’90s, the timing couldn’t be better for one of the best singer-songwriters of the decade to make an appearance.
Maybe we can go home again, but this isn’t a “Friends” nostalgia show. It’s a continuation of life experience and the resulting observations. It’s certainly a reminder, but it’s also a well-polished example of the best things Phair has done in the past 30 or so years. If that also means a generation of parents remembering to push Phair’s music on their daughters, so be it. The honesty and songwriting skill are timeless.
There’s a lot of bright California retro pop on Soberish, as Liz Phair reminds us what she’s been pondering the past 11 years. The first single, “Spanish Doors,” starts in a logical place: someone living a well-lived life suddenly seeing things blow up and wondering if and when it will all come back. Like so much of the record, “Spanish Doors” has a simple-but-bright hook that’s just shifty enough to keep things interesting through repeated plays.
Phair sounds vulnerable on “The Game,” a track best described as just being cool, then goes ’60s sophisticated California pop on “Hey Lou.” It’s bright, but the shadows are just as noticeable. Her voice is as full as ever, almost soothing. During “In There,” Phair sings about shaken confidence and a questionable relationship with bare, relatable honesty. It’s almost refreshing to hear her still having some of the same insecurities about human connections and finding a way around them, because there are still so many reasons to do so.
“In There” has a catchy riff and even better vocal hook. Longtime producer Brad Wood is back and knows how to help layer basic ideas into multidirectional pop instrumentation. After some sincere storytelling on the barebones “Sheridan Road,” Phair winks and nods some more to the Burt Bacharach ‘60s vibe in “Ba Ba Ba.” Maybe the best song on the record, it features so much attention to detail, including speeding up a perfectly groovy song to give it a bit more alacrity.
The title track continues the vibe. It’s almost a master class in pop songwriting, with Phair sounding so compelling and honest that you wish she was a friend. “I meant to be sober, but the bar’s so inviting,” she sings. Yeah … we’ve all been there. She wants to be loved, but love is so nerve-wracking.
Phair shows off her classic go-to move on “Soul Sucker,” telling a story that sounds like it’s being delivered in a smoky bar, looking one particular person square in the eye. “Lonely Street” lacks even minimal pretense, going wherever she feels is necessary, packing in as much mood while keeping things as listenable as possible.
Soberish gets a bit more in your face near the end, admitting to sex, drugs and scandal as honestly as a slap in the face on “Dosage,” then doubles down on “Bad Kitty.” The record ends peacefully, with the brief “Rain Scene” that comes exactly as advertised.
Liz Phair is hitting the road later this year with ‘90s contemporaries Alanis Morissette and Garbage (Concord Pavilion on Aug. 3) and Soberish should assure fans it’s not going to entirely be a greatest hits trip.
Follow music critic Tony Hicks at Twitter.com/TonyBaloney1967.