Any songwriter that debuted with a full-length as beguiling, brazen and beautiful as Exile In Guyville would have trouble clearing that lofty bar. Those expecting Phair to make that leap a second time might associate Whip-Smart with this lyric from "Alice Springs": "Some pot of gold/ It's just a carpeting store on opening day." That's a woefully unfair assessment, though. Right off the bat, "Chopsticks" makes it clear that Phair's flair for humanizing bawdiness is still in full bloom. There's also ample evidence that her eye for detail is without peer as she fills her songs with all sorts of intriguing left turns: a gender-swapped Rapunzel, lunar maps, Abe Vigoda as Frankenstein. And there's Phair's inimitable voice, an instrument that imbues her quotidian poetry with a knowing weariness.
Where Whip-Smart separates itself from its predecessor is in its modest musical ambitions. With Guyville co-conspirators Brad Wood and Casey Rice in tow, the album exchanges the relative murk and moodiness of Phair's previous album for a straightforward sonic clarity. It's most evident on the album's singles; "Supernova" takes her shameless sexual candor and makes it pop (as in Top 40), while the title track turns her matronly advice into a new-wave jumprope chant. Even downbeat and elliptical tunes like "Shane" and "Crater Lake" benefit from this tactical maneuver, allowing Phair's freak flag to fly unfettered. The shadow cast by Guyville is all but inescapable, but in any other songwriter's catalog, Whip-Smart would be a crown jewel.