Hilary Duff: Most Wanted
Hilary Duff: Most Wanted
Liz Phair’s career trajectory is so unique that it’s tempting to valorize her even when she misses. Lots of women in indie rock critique their peers; fewer actually toss guyville aside for Lilith dreams and pop-radio rapture (be it to trade up or sell out). Her self-titled post-Matador debut was brash, shameless—arguably superior to her indie classics—and sold less. Somebody’s Miracle—her fifth album in more than a decade but only her second since ’98—arrives just two years after the infamous Liz Phair.
The flaws slap listeners from the start. Phair warbles over a nondescript adult-alternative shuffle, “I want you to know that I feel bad for not making our dreams come true/ We had so many dreams, me and you.” Though the egregiousness varies, Somebody’s Miracle lacks the pop clarity of Liz Phair. The slide guitar on “Got My Own Thing” is pleasantly reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt (a worthwhile role model for aging gracefully), and Phair’s band offers a warm, casual brand of session-dude professionalism.
It’s possible that the lack of memorable material is due to the relatively short amount of time between releases. But Phair’s post-Matrix (the producers you can blame for Avril Lavigne) slump is reminiscent of the ennui that AC/DC, Bryan Adams, and Def Leppard all suffered on their post-Robert John “Mutt” Lange releases: Audiences feel the absence of the master’s hand. Strong musicianship keeps everything listenable, but a lot of sympathy and attentiveness is required to make sense of Phair’s vague emotional confessions.
While Somebody’s Miracle may still resonate with the Starbucks scene, pop tends to prefer singers who tackle one common emotion at a time with unwavering focus. Phair could never sing “the beat of my heart” 12 times in one chorus and follow it with a bridge consisting of “away” repeated 16 times. This is why Liz will never be as popular as Lizzie McGuire, aka Hilary Duff. Unlike most best-of compilations that appear after only two albums, Duff’s Most Wanted doesn’t signify the closure of a brief career so much as a contract-capper meant to satisfy an audience that won’t be offended by the opportunity to buy their favorite songs again and again.
Duff’s decision to focus on the ecstasy of dance-pop and pop-rock force you to deal with a rather queasy issue: her inability to sound ecstatic. Her rock tracks are surprisingly sluggish. “Girl Can Rock” takes Warrant’s “Cherry Pie,” removes all the sex and swagger, leaving just the chord progression. Her cover of “Our Lips Are Sealed” benefits from the presence of her older sister Haylie and a bit of karaoke zeal, but it still doesn’t sound like she understands what she’s singing about. The yearning and desire in her lyrics feel mandatory rather than inspired. Phair makes up for her unenergetic voice with a soupçon of wry cool—Duff isn’t capable of the knowing wink that gives less bravura pop its kick.
“Wake Up,” one of three new collaborations with Dead Executives—aka boyfriend Joel “She Sells Statutory” Madden and his Good Charlotte compatriot/brother Benji—reaffirms that Duff’s strongest work involves the daily struggle for joy and self-confidence: “I know I make mistakes/ I’m living life day to day/ It’s never really easy but it’s OK.” Based on their shared focus on perseverance, Phair and Duff should collaborate—especially if Duff admits she doesn’t understand what Phair means. “H.W.C.? Does that stand for ‘He’s Way Cool’?”