When Exile in Guyville came out in 1993, it was a boulder in a still pond, all the more shocking because Phair herself seemed essentially oblivious to the huge impact she was about to have. While Phair might have thought she was making a stripped down, kind of punky rock album, she discovered that she’d somehow created a touchstone for a generation of musicians. With these kind of cultural phenomenon artworks, the question is always the same: separated from the shock and awe, does it still have something to say? Exile certainly does. The things that separated it from the pack kind of still do. The album’s breathless pace, eighteen songs in under an hour, is still compelling and there’s not a single wasted note. After hearing some of the demos for these songs, you’ll realize that the only mistake on the album is perhaps in the ruthless editing done to the material in order to squeeze so many songs in. But taken as they are, the songs are fantastic, the lyrics sharp, reflective, self-deprecating, bitter and yearning by turns. Phair’s affectless delivery underlines the cleverness of the lyrics, but if you listen closely you’ll catch the emotion that she’s purposely underselling. The album goes from straight-ahead rockers, like the blissful Never Said, to the weird atmospheres of something like Flower to the punky energy of Help Me Mary or 6’1. Whatever she does here, Phair pulls it off perfectly. It is a polished album, polished in its rawness, if that makes any sense, but it’s lack of pretention is refreshing. Phair continues to say that it is, in some mysterious way, a response to Exile on Main Street, but that’s silly enough to forgive. What it isn’t pretentious about is being profound or meaningful; it simply is those things because it is, but it refuses to make a big deal about itself. You’ll catch the brilliance of Exile in Guyville or you won’t; it doesn’t give a **** and that’s refreshing. It’s what it is, which is exciting and bracing and damn near perfect; blink and you’ll miss it though – we’re so used to art proclaiming its own greatness than when art doesn’t bother beating you over the head, we tend to assume it’s not worth noticing. But twenty-five years on, Exile is still a trip, a taut, bracing hour in the company of the coolest girl in the world, musing on the faults and failures of just about everything and everyone. Take a seat on the pavement; Phair is the busker on the corner, holding court. You wanna keep walking? Go ahead. I’ll be listening. 4 stars.
tl;dr – twenty-five years later, Phair’s bracing debut retains its power to surprise, move and challenge. 4 stars.