“Will you take me as I am?” Joni Mitchell sang on her ground-breaking 1971 album, “Blue.” There’s a vulnerability in that openness, but also a resolve. Mitchell wasn’t coming from a place of weakness.
The singer never viewed herself as part of a movement — she was not going to be anyone’s figurehead or spokeswoman. But “Blue” still sounds like a map for the road being traveled by countless women in the #MeToo era.
It also was an album of startling intimacy that helped pave the way for three cassette tapes recorded by Liz Phair under the name “Girly Sound” in 1991-92. They became the backbone of Phair’s 1993 debut, “Exile in Guyville,” a revered if initially divisive album that’s getting a renewed round of attention on its 25th anniversary.
As good as “Guyville” was, it was the “Girly Sound” tapes — voice and guitar recorded in Phair’s bedroom in the Chicago suburbs — that got the buzz going in the then-dominant Wicker Park rock scene. This was the “Guyville” that Phair fell into but never quite infiltrated. She wasn’t one of the boys, she didn’t sound anything like any of the cool bands, and she didn’t play endless gigs on Tuesday nights as part of the pay-your-dues hierarchy. “Girly Sound” critiqued that scene’s cliches and “stupid rules,” and “Guyville” turned them into unnerving and — for a generation of young women who had never heard anything like it — cathartic rock anthems.
Phair’s label, Matador Records, is marking the “Exile in Guyville” anniversary with a box set that includes the original album plus the “Girly Sound” recordings. Phair is devoting her current tour to the “Girly Sound” songs.
Mitchell, 74, is unlikely to ever tour again. She suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015 and hasn’t performed in years, but her music still sounds visionary. She was celebrated in a recent biography, David Yaffe’s “Reckless Daughter” (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and “Blue” ranked at the top of a recent National Public Radio list of the 150 greatest albums ever made by women.
“Exile” was Phair’s first album, “Blue” Mitchell’s fourth. Both contain the stories of women wrestling out from under lives that men tried to define, and were met with a mixture of acclaim and disdain. Each in its own way was a confrontational album, filled with songs that dared to speak what so many women silently felt.
When Mitchell asked on “Blue” to be accepted for who she was, it made many listeners uncomfortable. “God, Joan, save something of yourself,” Kris Kristofferson said.
“He was embarrassed by it,” Mitchell recalled in a late ’90s interview with the Tribune. “People were generally embarrassed by it because people, especially women, didn’t say things like that in pop music.”
By the time Mitchell’s debut album, “Song to a Seagull,” was released 50 years ago in March, she had already been writing and playing original songs destined to become classics (“Both Sides Now,” “Chelsea Morning,” “The Circle Game”), enough to fill several albums. David Crosby — in his final days with the Byrds and soon to form Crosby Stills & Nash with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash — brought her to the attention of Reprise Records, and then was assigned to produce the label’s latest signing. His flat production turned “Song to a Seagull” into a ho-hum debut, but Mitchell emerged with a clearer idea of how to get her music across. She would produce herself from then on, and “Clouds” (1969) and “Ladies of the Canyon” (1970) established the Canadian-born artist as the most accomplished singer-songwriter in a California scene overflowing with talent and ambition. Her home served as a kind of artistic sanctuary for members of the Mamas and Papas, CSN, fellow Canadian Neil Young, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, JD Souther and countless others.
But for Mitchell, this was also a time for reckoning. Through talent and pluck she had risen from nowhere to become a star, which didn’t suit her. She ran away — to Crete, where she taught herself to play the Appalachian dulcimer — and then suffered a nervous breakdown. She was haunted by the memory of the daughter she had when she was 21 and placed for adoption while struggling to make a living in the mid-’60s. And she was going through a series of troubled romances with famous or soon-to-famous artists: Nash, Taylor, Leonard Cohen.
A number of songs on “Blue” drew on the emotional toll taken by these relationships without naming names. Yet even though the album arrived to a generally favorable, if often stunned response, it also engendered its share of snark. Rolling Stone, the loudest voice in rock journalism, dubbed her “Queen of El Lay” and diagrammed her affairs, a blatantly sexist putdown to which countless male rock-star lotharios were never subjected.
Mitchell declined interviews with Rolling Stone for years after, but the damage had been done – a landmark album had somehow been discounted, slotted in the bin with other “confessional” singer-songwriter albums. That was rock-critic shorthand for “weepy, self-pitying, solipsistic and melodramatic.”
But “Blue” was never that. Mitchell’s personal experiences were woven through the songs, but the personalities weren’t the point — intimacy was. This was, above all, a layered, artistic statement that aspired to say something about the human condition, not wallow in petty gossip. It was not a traditional singer-songwriter work so much as a soul-jazz album — its cover, tone and introspection evoked Otis Redding’s “Otis Blue,” Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks.” It spoke through a highly personal language: idiosyncratic guitar tunings, a voice that at times resembled a muted jazz trumpet. It suggested an expressionist painting of emotion and texture on a wide-open canvas that provided room for the music to move. Yet somehow it came packaged as a series of three-minute songs brimming with melodies built to linger, familiar yet mysterious.
It’s also an album about longing and shattered illusions. “The Last Time I Saw Richard” might have come off as irrevocably cynical with a less nuanced singer, but Mitchell’s jazz-like phrasing over her counterpoint piano lines gives it all a bittersweet glow. She pulls off a similar feat on the deeply wounded “Little Green,” about the daughter she thought she might never see again, the performance betraying not a hint of self-pity, only a yearning for what might have been.
A similar sense of loss pervades Phair’s “Girly Sound” and “Exile in Guyville.”
“Well I look at the stars, and I know you’re under them,” she sang on one of the “Girly Sound” songs, “Ant in Alaska.” “I look at the cars and I know you insure them.” The homemade music came with a rueful, knowing laugh. “Guyville” is more direct, “Girly Sound” introspection filtered through guitar-bass-drums basics, but it still feels unsettled and unsettling, in part because the arrangements were built on Phair’s deadpan vocals and self-taught guitar. Her anger, humor and I’ll-show-you bravado was that of an outsider, and much of the album has a nothing-to-lose transparency.
It was too much for some listeners. Much of the initial conversation around “Exile” was directed at its more sensationalist elements, the explicitness in songs such as “Flower” or “F — — and Run.” Like the “Queen of El-Lay” chatter that swirled around Mitchell, as if to reduce her to a check list of relationships, Phair’s accomplishment was sometimes reduced to a variation of “how can a woman think/say those things on a rock record?” Which was precisely the point.
Many of the characters in “Exile” couldn’t be so easily reduced to a cliche once the album’s 18 songs were taken in full. They convey a complexity that never succumbs to the stereotypes that had been laid out for any woman who picked up a guitar before her: victim, vixen, the “angry female.” Phair wanted it all, and her album is a declaration of that desire. She was not only angry and skeptical, but also tender and darkly humorous.
Much like Joni Mitchell at the height of her powers in 1971, Phair wasn’t compromising. Like many women who followed in the wake of “Blue,” the singer understood that Mitchell’s question — “Will you take me as I am?” — was not just a plea, but a demand.
©2018 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.