When Liz Phair released “Exile in Guyville” in June of 1993, I was five years old.
The album made no blip on my radar until I was 18 and my best friend, worldly with a semester of college under her belt, included “Fuck and Run” on a mix CD for me. It wasn’t until I too had spent a few months at college that the song and its accompanying album really resonated with me. Burnt out from parties and beer and frats and fooling around with boys I didn’t like that much while yearning for others who didn’t notice me at all, made Liz’s words, written 13 years earlier, feel like my gospel truth. “I didn’t know where I was at first/just that I woke up in your arms/and almost immediately I felt sorry cause I didn’t think this would happen again.” You may as well have tattooed that on my arm.
I played “Exile” on repeat for weeks, identifying with one song or another on any given day and looping it over and over on my iPod as I walked to class.
I remember lying in bed with my ex-boyfriend a few years ago talking about the albums we couldn’t live without. Mine were “Harvest” by Neil Young and “Exile in Guyville,” with its sophomore sister “Whip-Smart” coming in a close third. My ex didn’t get it. “Wasn’t that a girl answer to ‘Exile on Main Street?'” He asked. “It’s on all those best albums of ever lists but I guess I’ve never listened to it.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. I didn’t want to play “Exile” for him, have him hate it by proxy of its feminine mystique and ruin it for me.
Because “Exile” is at its heart a young woman’s album, a Twitter feed of complaints and gripes and real, hurting heartbreaks. Though it’s one of the most famous albums of the ’90s, it’s timeless. Lines like “He put in my hands a loaded gun and then told me not to fire it” will never feel outdated.
Much has been made of its explicit content, but I’ve always thought it was more emotionally dirty and raw than sexually. It’s confessional without being cloying. Liz’s tuneless, monotonous voice just rambles on about blow jobs and roommates and unattainable lovers and it feels real. There’s little to no production on most of “Exile,” but even those with the radio slick like “Divorce Song” and “Never Said” are authentic. She spits insults in a measured, detached voice. She longs for a boyfriend who’ll write her letters, all that stupid old shit. Her relationships crumble. People do awful things to each other. She wants to please people in spite of herself. That’s what your twenties are like. You get pissed, you get upset and then you just deal with it.
I always say it’s been a good year if I can get through all 12 months without playing “Exile” in its entirety. It’s the album I reach for when I feel down and out, man or no man. It’s what I need when I hurt really badly, when I feel dark, when I just want to listen to something I can sing from Track 1 to the very end, belting out every word.
“Exile” is my story and your story and Liz’s story and generations of other women’s story. It doesn’t matter that I was five years old when this thing hit the shelves. It’s the story of being a young woman. You want to fuck around and you want to be in love. You want to be attached and you want to be single.
It’s the story of a girl fucking up and fumbling around and occasionally doing OK.