I’m Thinking Maybe: The Luster of Liz Phair’s “Shatter”
There is no shortage of commentary and praise for Liz Phair’s debut Exile in Guyville, especially from the perspective of a young woman. The ways in which her callow blonde “girl next door” demeanor shocked listeners in the face of her depraved, sagacious lyrics has been reiterated in many different contexts, in addition to how her subject matter seemed to reach far beyond her age. After all, she wrote “Divorce Song” as a sophomore in college, though it would seem like the work of someone drained by the pangs of middle-age. At once she could appear both 15 and 60, causing a discrepancy in terms of traditional notions of womanhood, as well as a certain difficulty for those who needed to condense her image.
I will always relish how she lays into the word “cunt” on “Dance of the Seven Veils,” her voice feathery and guiltless, to say nothing of the entirety of “Flower,” which is a song that has more balls than anything men in indie had put out for years. I love her for the same reasons fans have for nearly three decades, but I will say there is one song that epitomizes all that I love about her, and one I rarely see discussed, which is “Shatter.”
“Shatter” is the longest song on the album, coming in at over five minutes, and while it still fits within the narrative landscape of “Guyville,” there is something both haunting and halting about its distinct tumult.
The first 2 ½ minutes of the song are a dream-like instrumental before Phair’s voice cuts through to acknowledge that while she may have been messing around with other guys, the effect of being with the song’s addressee has left her floundering. She sings, “But something about/ Just being with you slapped me right in the face/ Nearly broke me in two,” in a way that sounds more like an uttered confession than an attempt at performance. She is caught in her tracks, interrupting the song’s winding intro to reach towards the articulation of some lost feeling, one she seems to forget ever existing. “It’s a mark/ I’ve taken heart/ And I know I will carry it with me for a long, long time,” she emits, her voice fading, before the instrumental ensues again.
The next time Phair sings, her voice is raised in the expelling of desperate longing, crying, “I don’t know if I could drive a car/ Fast enough to get to where you are/ Or wild enough not to miss the boat completely.” She pleads against separation with little confidence, and beyond a literal interpretation, questions what physical and emotional recklessness she would endure for the sake of this new Guy. The next verse repeats this image but ups the stakes, as Phair sings, “I don’t know if I could fly a plane/ Well enough to tail spin out your name/ Or high enough not to lose control completely.” Has the speaker been left so damaged by previous let downs to allow herself to plunge into this budding relationship, or will she botch the whole mission in the face of past failures? She is caught in the throes of fear and desire, causing a certain drowning sensation that is stabilized by the musical composition’s lull.
The lines that could be considered the chorus may easily be thought of as a cop-out, but I think they are brilliant. Simply, Phair sings, “Honey, I’m thinking maybe/ You know, just maybe.” She cannot even form the words: “maybe you are what I need in this fleeting, delicate moment,” or “maybe I could love you until I have seen the trees lose their leaves for the last time and can no longer remember my last name.” There is an element of superstition in refusing to say these possibilities out loud, since to articulate is to momentarily solidify, and she cannot jinx such a precious prospect with the potential for rejection still looming. Instead, she opts for hope, as “maybe” becomes a form of prayer, for what is more miraculous than amorous reciprocation?
Most writing on “Shatter” considers it to be a break-up song, but I resist this interpretation. To me it is a song of promise, the shattering of disillusion, and the disorientation caused by love’s swirling unpredictability. I’m thinking maybe. Just maybe the sliver of distance between love and loss, permanence and mere prospect can allow for both phenomena at once, and who is to say which will win out in the end. Maybe Phair knows. Maybe I will keep listening in the chance that she does.