Sandtimer Selects : Liz Phair – ‘Shane’

This is the second in a blog series called ‘Sandtimer Selects‘, to which we’ll be adding a song every week or so.

By the time things return to a state of relative normality, there will have been a gap of at least fifteen months between the last gig I attended and the next. It remains to be seen how much we will segment our pre-Covid memories from whatever the future is but, out of all the pre-pandemic gigs I attended, one of my highlights was seeing Liz Phair perform in London in 2019. I almost didn’t go. I was suffering minor whiplash after a dangerous driver wrote off my car the day before. I was in a pretty nervous state but I didn’t want to waste the ticket and I am glad I went.

Liz Phair performing at Islington Assembly Hall, 2019

I first heard Liz Phair’s ‘Divorce Song’ via a DIY cover version on SoundCloud and very quickly moved on to the real thing. The understated storytelling and beautiful open guitar tone reeled me in and I was soon listening to the whole of her debut album, Exile in Guyville, marvelling at the casual chromaticism of the chord progressions, her effortless and characterful singing style and the juxtaposition of the confessional lyrics with a sense of cool, ironic detachment. Just as one does when discovering any music that instantly resonates, I wondered where it had been all my life.

For some reason it took a few years till I was inclined to do another deep-dive into Phair’s music. A vague music media consensus that Exile In Guyville was the peak perhaps explained this reticence but now, having listened many times to Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg, I don’t know why these other two albums have not been as celebrated as the first- I think they are just as impressive and unique. I am also really excited about the next record which may be appearing quite soon.

Shane‘ is one track from her second album Whip-Smart which would be unlikely to make a gig setlist or ‘best of’ album. It is not trying to be that kind of song. It’s subdued, quiet and sparse in its instrumentation, contrasting with the joyful, brash rock sound of many of Phair’s songs, but it is one of my favourite songs of hers.

Starting with a resigned sigh and an eerily slowed down drum loop, the song narrates a night drive around a city with a journalist (Shane) who is interviewing people the night that war has been declared, presumably the first Gulf War. Fear permeates the song- of the world suddenly changing, of conscription, of the cogs of war crunching irreversibly into motion. The final repeated refrain of the song- ‘you’ve gotta have fear in your heart’- resembles a mantra, although the meaning is ambiguous: is it an imploration- ‘you must have fear’, or a supposition- ‘surely you have fear’?

Whether it’s a declaration of war, an election that goes south, a terrorist attack, a natural disaster or whatever else, the night can be the worst time to take in bad news. You see it appearing in fragments and feel like the only one awake to see it. There’s a jarring mix of pity for, and envy of, the people who have yet to find out- ‘tonight, in bed, sleeping’ and a fear of how that wider discovery the next morning will somehow make the whole thing more real.

‘Shane’, with its almost whispered vocals, the ambiguous ringing guitar chords and ominous bass underpinning it, vividly evokes this night time isolation with a haiku-level economy of lyrics and music.

The refrain at the end continues for nearly 2 minutes- a strangely jazzy melody over a chord progression that never resolves. Although it is accompanied by a crescendo-ing collage of news stations from around the world, the music and lyrics are repeated note for note, without any variation, 25 times. It is an admirably bold decision.

A German musician and philosopher called Christian Friedrich Michaelis wrote a few essays in which he tried to translate Immanuel Kant’s ideas about the ‘sublime’ to music. His general theory is that the sublime in music occurs when it breaks out of the boundaries of the art form to escape what the mind can usually comprehend. On the one hand, the sublime can be achieved by creating music that changes so rapidly and so unpredictably that it baffles the listener into abandoning any grasp of the shape of the music:

“Supposing, let us say, the established tonality suddenly veers in an unexpected direction, supposing a chord is resolved in a quite unconventional manner, supposing the longed-for calm is delayed by a series of stormy passages, then astonishment and awe result and in this mood the spirit is profoundly moved and sublime ideas are stimulated or sustained.”

Alternately (and a lot more prophetically), Michaelis suggests that a composer can repeat a musical idea excessively and achieve a similar transcendence:

“Music’s extension is thus movement in time alone […]. But unmodified identical continuation of musical sounds or chords, or the uniform repetition of these will, if unduly extended, prove unbearable. The ear seeks variety and change. […] Thus the maintenance of one fixed unchanging idea, and the holding and piling up of dissonances are techniques that are employed in music solely for two purposes: either to express the sublime or to intensify the music’s impact and to give it bite; such procedures always cause a certain degree of unrest or pain, which in turn arouses our vital forces and enhances our joy when the unrest is assuaged.

Given that Michaelis wrote this a few years into the 1800s, it would be interesting to know how his theories would apply to pop music, minimalism, dance music, baby shark etc. Repetition caught on a lot more since his lifetime. But even allowing for the increased use of repetition in music of the last century or so, I think the exactness of the repetition in the ‘Shane’ outro, the painstaking detail of it, lifts that moment into the ‘sublime’.

I recommend you listen to this song and, if you haven’t already, Liz Phair’s wider repertoire.

I’ve added ‘Shane’ into the ‘Sandtimer Selects’ playlist embedded below, to which we’ll add a new track every week or so.


P.S. You can hear the original demo of the song here.

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