Eleanor Friedberger - Personal Record | Album Review | By Volume

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Eleanor Friedberger

Personal Record

The best oboe performance never.

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Author: on June 14, 2013
June 4, 2013

Eleanor Friedberger begins Personal Record, her second solo album, with the best kind of empty promise: “I don’t want to bother you.” It’s unanticipated, this gentle tap on the back, and at first it might seem like she’s downplaying what’s to come, playing the immediate defensive because it’s the best way to describe the album: twelve dizzily remittal songs from a legitimate, self-establishing singer-songwriter, feet fixed on the ground and metaphors carefully unmixed. The line looks forward, but has to explain the impulse to pull back, its keyboards and guitars buffering and tapping away from it with sluggish trepidation. Before she can get down to brass tacks, or even just start telling her stories, Friedberger has to admit that what’s come before affords an explanation.

Between her solo albums and time as one-half of sibling duo the Fiery Furnaces, Friedberger has made a career of reacting flawlessly to commissioned improv. She’s dramatised finding lost dogs, pre-emptive cake-cutting, and occult holy cities, and she’s mined the reality of those scenes by dishevelling them. The Friedbergers make pop songs with scrambled circles, trying to detail any offbeat encounter that might get cut in standard indie rock storytelling, and making a point of its very real presence with a sharp piano chord or an off-kilter rhythm; I think of “Drive to Dallas”, with its interlocking guitar freak-out and ever quickening tempo, and I see a road trip with rough edges. They’ve wielded the vague genre they belong to like its canon began with The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and died with a lesser-known Deerhoof song, but Personal Record isn’t a Blueberry Boat conundrum, or even an I’m Going Away one. It pulls away from that play-world, assimilating instead with laid-back notebook albums. It’s one of those self-intellectualising albums that pries inward with a coy smile, and so it shares more DNA with slacker indie rock, most notably Silver Jews’ American Water, a touchstone that watched its misery abate, or at least tried to. Some of these songs may elude that and perpetuate the sunshine instead – “She’s a Mirror” tries, with its bubblegum chorus and saxophone clinchers – but Friedberger sets up a whole lot less. Personal Record ends with two tender and despairing slow jams, as if she’s made true on her first retreating promise.

Personal Record is less scene change, more emotional displacement. Friedberger’s role in the Fiery Furnaces is lyrical and vocal, a force that maps brother Matthew’s knotty, maddeningly instrumented music. Her own songs are subdued and plaintive, requiring little to no suspension of belief – “Let me set the record straight: no oboe appears on “PERSONAL RECORD”, she tweeted recently, as if people can’t help but attach instruments to her music, or imagine where she might put them for maximum incredulity marks. The lyrics that follow are less situational and aimed second-person; on “I’ll Never Be Happy Again”, she makes fast work of moving from an analogy of Reggie and Peter to herself, mumbling “and that’s how I feel about you, too” the way someone might confess to their crush by pretending it’s for somebody else. The smoky guitar phrases at its choruses make “Never Be Happy” feel dramatised, but in a different way from the average Friedberger song, dealing with accursed emotional abstracts rather than the physicality of the bizarre: “Frequent rejection, occasional affection” becomes a mission statement for Personal Record, a place where Friedberger chronicles the ratio of personal victories to losses. Even when Friedberger has outbursts, such as on the partly slick and wholly raucous “Stare at the Sun”, the gaze is focused from her to accusing subject: “If that was goodbye, I must be high”, she demands, using her metaphors only to describe her opposite number: “when I’m with you everything’s treasure / I forget what it’s like to be gone”.

Friedberger hasn’t necessarily lost the esoteric eye on Personal Record, but its use is more damaging, often repealed at the last minute. I’ve never heard a song like “Other Boys” from her before, its duplicated, constantly re-emerging guitar chords holding her to one spot when she might want to go breakneck. It’s chock full of broken euphemisms and joke-killing kickers, talk of being “upstaged by the empire state” and questions of “how any man could resist a girl with such a big setlist”, and they play out in a minor key, with a smirk that’s more bitter than comedic. The song’s chorus sounds like it’s stuck in reruns, wrapping its disappointment around one mantra (“There are other boys”) that’s explaining without reasons. “Singing Time” follows it, and sends off Personal Record with the same kind of fractured quirks; it’s a song about the realities of romance, like the fact its gestures go unnoticed and the right couple never links up. In a way, it’s as hopeless as “Other Boys”, and even sparser, but Friedberger’s songwriting glint intrudes on the song, trying to kick the album into a swirling pantomimic finale. It only lasts a few seconds, before the song tumbles down to itself, the album ringing true to itself in its final, floundering moments.

What’s so great about Friedberger’s songwriting is how it compassionately doubles up on itself. Her sad little ironies are given an abiding layer of sincerity, because being able to deduce them is a sad affair indeed: “Other Boys” has those damning lines, but they’re no joke. “Singing Time” cares about carelessness. And while the arrangements are different on Personal Record – because, you know, the album’s a total downer, even with all the party – they’re just as essential to what she’s saying as her brother’s music is on a wackier, more ornate album, every line treated like its essential it gets extracted. Every piece of orchestration is tight, be it mistifying what she has to say with finger clicks on “Echo or Encore”, or throwing down a jangly guitar phrase worthy of the name-checked “Come On Eileen” on “When I Knew”. These little flourishes aren’t complementary; they’re aggrandizing, reacting sensitively to Friedberger’s truthing. They make her opening plea explicit: if she sounds overly careful, it’s because she wants to be understood. She wants to be heard.

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