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So far, she's adapted well to recording for a larger audience. As she describes it, "I'm reaching out so much more, looking for a connection. Whereas before I was almost hell-bent on setting myself apart." Thanks to Phair's sunnier attitude as well as some top-shelf production (by John Alagia, producer for John Mayer, and John Shanks of Sheryl Crow and Chris Isaak), Somebody's Miracle has a mature, folk-rock sound that goes down easier than the lo-fi productions of her Matador discs, and as a bonus for moms with kids in the minivan, this time there's no cussing.
Though the album sounds more like adult alternative than soul, Phair actually planned it as a response to Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life; she only backed off when she didn't have the time or material to do a 21-song double record. (Was that the label's decision or hers? "It was the best decision," she responds.) But Wonder still gave her a guiding principle: Like on Key of Life, there are painful songs -- on "Table for One," she sings about her brother's alcoholism -- and other songs that are candy-coated but still make room for frank, thoughtful lyrics.
On "Stars and Planets" ("That was my 'Sir Duke'"), she even recaps what she's learned from the industry. "There are some women that I toured with, and [I'm] trying to say [to them], 'It's not the glamour that makes you special. It's not all the hoopla... What's different about you is your ability to reveal your everydayness, your humanity.'
"So 'Stars and Planets' is about [how] we all shine. You" -- she points to me -- "have the same amount of great stuff in you that I do. He" -- the bartender -- "has the same amount of great stuff. Some people can give it. And that's what makes a real star, the people that can give it."
The next night at Boston's Paradise Rock Club, Phair and Meneghin made a brave stab at crossing the old stuff with the new, playing a barely rehearsed, intimate sit-down show, MTV Unplugged-style. Sure, the crowd was more excited when Phair dug out "Black Market White Baby Dealer" than when she debuted "Everything to Me." And setting aside the guitar to vamp her way through 2003's "Rock Me" drew far less drool than her cutesy, unerotic read of 1993's "Flower" (you know, the "blow job queen" song). On the other hand, compared to the bold choruses of "Polyester Bride" or "Extraordinary," the old favorites from Guyville actually sounded kinda small. I didn't want to hear Phair shoehorn her voice back into that low tomboy register, and the simple guitar parts of "Girls Girls Girls" and "Mesmerized" made the songs sound like brittle miniatures.
So where's the happy balance? The problem with hits like "Extraordinary" isn't that they're phony but that they don't present us with anything unique to their performer. Likewise, on "Everything to Me," it's impressive to hear Phair's voice -- which used to change registers the way an old Chevy shifts gears -- tackle a lung-busting power ballad, but it's not Phair's power ballad. Anyone could sing it, and plenty of American Idol leftovers could do it better.
But on both of her Capitol records, you'll find other songs that could have come from nobody else -- like Somebody's Miracle's excellent opener, "Leap of Innocence," which feels like a long talk with a woman whom you're done breaking up with. Somebody's Miraclelands in the bottom half of Phair's catalog -- to my ears, it's one "Uncle Alvarez" short of Whitechocolatespaceegg-- but unlike her self-titled disc, it sounds unforced, unified, a good deal more "Liz Phairian."
When we spoke at the hotel, I asked Phair which audience is more fickle, the indie-rock fans who want her to stay the same or the new pop crowd that just wants hits? "Can't tell yet, can I?" she responds. "I can't tell how much of my essence got through to the new fans, like, if they would become loyal in their own way, you know? Or if they just liked that song."
Perhaps Phair's blessing and curse is that she still wants to please both camps. She wants to keep what she calls "the warty underbelly of yourself," that humanity that's in all of us and that came through so poignantly on those rough-sounding Guyville songs. But she also wants to be a star, the kind of celebrity who can project herself onto gigantic screens, Gap ads, and huge, roaring crowds.
And that's what makes her so compelling, what may be the most "Liz Phairian" thing about her, that she's struggling so publicly to bridge that divide between the bedroom songwriter and the spectacular star and that we can watch her succeed or fail almost song by song. If Sheryl Crow recorded Somebody's Miracle, which is not hard to imagine, it would be a blip on the radar. For Phair, it's another chapter in an ongoing struggle. It fascinates us because the process is so transparent and because maybe that ambition -- and that need to shine -- is the most awesomely human thing about her.