If there’s something musicians firmly believe in and hold dear, it’s freedom of speech. The ability to say what they like, how they like and for it to be delivered (in song) to the masses exactly how they originally envisioned. Such naivety, especially when dealing with major record companies, leads to much confusion, disdain and amusement. “You were never supposed to hear these songs. These songs lost me my management, my record deal and a lot of nights of sleep.”, she says. Listening to Funstyle, Liz Phair’s first album in five years, you begin to understand that freedom of speech is a privilege, not a right.
Devoting an album of songs almost entirely to “the machine” is painfully embarrassing — to your listener, who really doesn’t give a fuck and surely to yourself, Liz. Nobody likes a whiner. Especially somebody with a body of work that speaks for itself. When life (or “The Machine”) deals you a shitty hand, rise above it. The fans needn’t know. They, myself in fact, would prefer to hear (if it were all you could come up with) songs about “boyfriends and sodas” all day long. At a stretch, we might even stand for you singing (I feel the revulsion rising) “gimme your hot white cum”, but ever since you held my gaze as you sang it to me at the ICA in London, I’ve never been able to listen to that song again.
Funstyle, with a few exceptions, is a pity party for those shook hands with the devil and regretted it. Surely, unless there was coercion involved, you must take some of the blame in this, Liz. I applaud you for taking the direct-to-video route by self-releasing this yourself. Clearly this is the smartest thing for you to do, but this is not the album to re-launch your career. I hear the words “New Liz Phair Album” and I revert back to being a long-haired indie kid wishing there were more girls like Liz Phair in this world. Listening to Funstyle makes me less sure of this statement.
Now, the music. The sappy theme-to-a-tv-show “Satisfied” manages to say whole lot by saying nothing at all. Neutered lyrically and musically by its Dawnson’s Creek-like arrangement, the song sounds like its been dipped in autotune. “Some things aren’t that different/But other things, they change”…. I mean, what?? What things?? In other parts of the song we get “I came, I saw, I kicked its ass” and “I remember when you held my hair as I puked, oh, everywhere”. In old school terms, this is track 1, side 1, this track has pole album position and I’m already reaching for The Replacements Let It Be to throw on “Unsatisfied” just to counteract the effect.
So far, so Phair. From this point on, Funstyle takes an “are you fucking serious?” wrong turn. “Smoke” saunters along as a middle-finger raising record company radio jingle as Liz vents her spleen, but you can see she’s having fun, so you let it ride. Things come to a grinding halt on track three, when Liz decides it’s time to rap but not just backwards-cap-n-baggy-pants rap, but Indian Bhangra style on the god-awful “Bollywood”, which again is another of Liz’s Rage Against The Machine. It’s sad that these tracks obscure what decent, but largely anodyne songs that lurk on Funstyle, in particular “Miss September”, the sassy rock of “My My” and “And He Slayed Her”.
Funstyle is all over the place. There’s a lack of cohesion and a feel of box ticking – ballad, middle finger, ballad, rocker, ballad, middle finger, rocker etc. The last track (“U Hate It”) is the final ironic nail in the coffin. Even with its “Freak Like Me“ phrasing on the verses, its daring the listener to side against her. Despite refusing to be lured into the trap, I feel backed into a corner. This goes for the rest of Funstyle. It may, maybe, one day, make for a great book. But as music, it’s painful, and as embarrassing to sit through as listening to somebody talk about their IBS. Whatever it was that you had to get out of your system, Liz, just put it in a box and move on. I’ll delete it from my itunes and maybe we can pretend this never happened.