There are maybe three main ways to understand Funstyle, the most obvious one being the very real possibility that Liz Phair just doesn’t give a fuck anymore. After a decade of withering reviews, plummeting sales, and a thorough razing of her hard-earned 90s cred, the aging pop mom has been left with no label, no management, and none too many fans. Which explains why this album recently appeared without warning on her (very homespun) website, why it’s being hawked for just six bucks, why the album art is a screencap of Phair’s desktop, and why the tracks aren’t even in the right damn order when you crank ’em through your MP3 machine.
It would also explain, to an extent, why the album sounds the way it does. In the wake of a failed appeal to the Avril Lavigne demographic in 2003 (the self-titled) and a face-planting reach for adult contempo in 2005 (Somebody’s Miracle), it would seem Phair has accepted that few people will like — or even care about — whatever she does at this point. As such, Funstyle’s offerings include a hellish Bhangra rap song about writing soap opera soundtracks for a living, a track called “U Hate It” (which takes great pains to justify its title), an absolutely batshit take on funk rock, and a handful of other scarcely believable oddities. If you’re gonna get slammed and hardly sell enough copies to break even either way, why not have a laugh doing it?
Another tenable explanation of Funstyle is that Liz Phair has straight-up lost her mind. A gander at her website (which, at present, is the only place to get the record) is less than reassuring, from the cracked design to Phair’s scrawled oath of total sincerity. In what are effectively the liner notes, she urges the listener not to “mistake [these songs] for anything other than an entirely personal, untethered-from-the-machine, free for all view of the world.” And to her credit, it’s impressive — and wonderfully bizarre — that Phair mustered the nerve not only to make an album this aggressively bad, but to actually stand by it when her record label and professional handlers scampered away out of fear for their own careers. It’s probably no accident that the only other thing on LizPhair.com is a trailer for the 2008 reissue of her stone classic debut Exile in Guyville — a poignant reminder of the brilliance this songstress once seemed to wield and the deranged gutter-depths she’s sunk to since.
But if it’s not the haphazard product of a career-choking cackle or mental collapse, then Funstyle might very well be something of an artistic statement. Which is to say, it sounds the way it does because Liz Phair wants it to sound exactly so. Songs like “U Hate It,” “Bollywood,” and “Smoke” approach genre distinctions like a dumpster truck, and a whole hell of a lot of thought and effort go into the landfill with ’em: densely layered harmonies abound, outlandish sounds and textures echo throughout, and the predictable song structures of Phair’s recent work engorge and distend into multi-movement excess. The more traditionally Phair tunes — “And He Slayed Her,” “Satisfied,” “Bang! Bang!” — provide something of a respite, but even the record’s most normal moments retain traces of Funstyle’s characteristic absurdity. It’s a madcap mess for sure, but there’s enough care and consideration on display to suggest something more than cynicism or insanity behind the scenes. Her intentions as an artist here would be tricky to pin down, but it seems that if the album has a uniting theme, it’s parody: taken in total, Funstyle feels like a parody of bad music, of Liz Phair music, of music in general, and on. The fact that she managed to drag Dave Matthews into the fray for a few guitar parts only adds to the record’s surreal sense of humor.
For my money, however, it doesn’t matter whether Phair’s latest is a Dylanesque joke, a self-aware nervous breakdown à la Daniel Johnston, or the kind of satirical pop dismemberment Girl Talk did on his (widely overlooked) debut Secret Diary. Regardless of how or why it was made, Funstyle stands as something far greater than the sum of its dubious, ostensibly bullshit parts. The closest analog I can find is not the work of any other musician, but rather the visual artist Ryan Trecartin, whose extra-dimensional videos combine transsexuality, random acts of love and violence, psychotic debauchery, and a 3rd-grader’s knack for Final Cut editing to make art that is, against all odds, uniquely expressive and transportive. Funstyle, with its stylistic schizophrenia, pitch-shifted asides, and frequently inane lyrics, casts a similar spell on its listeners — who are, inevitably, no less limited a group of people than those who can find interest in a 30-minute video of transvestites trashing hotels and speaking in tongues about globalization. Even as one of them, I can’t imagine many other folks having the patience to get through this album, let alone to find it fascinating.
If nothing else, Phair has delivered a pretty complex and unpredictable record, and in many ways that alone is worth celebrating at such an unpromising point in her career. But there’s more to it than that. With Funstyle, she has crafted above all else an experience, and one that is entertaining and rewarding in ways that few records can be. It’s an arduous listen, and as music it is unquestionably terrible; but as a musical experience, it’s something that shouldn’t be missed.