Eleanor Friedberger, ‘Personal Record’ – Album Review
Eleanor Friedberger's second solo album since the 2011 announcement of an extended hiatus for her band, the Fiery Furnaces, doesn't follow the tradition of sophomore slumps. Whereas debuts are often strong because songwriters have had their entire lifetimes to craft them, Friedberger's 2011 solo effort 'Last Summer' was made by and artist with a decade of band success in her purse. Alhough brother Matthew wrote the majority of the Furnaces' material, it's hard to believe Eleanor was hanging onto 'Last Summer' throughout the whole experience. Rather, the record felt like a contained project by a singer that has been a part of many albums going it alone -- and succeeding.
From this perspective, it makes sense that 'Personal Record' would improve upon its predecessor, and what's perhaps most interesting are the ways in which Friedberger initially seems to benefit from distancing herself from the Fiery Furnaces. Opener 'I Don't Want to Bother You' could be heard as a soliloquy, as Friedberger calls for the audience's attention as politely as possible. Likewise, the '70s-style organ of the verse is just off-kilter enough to recall her past, but the backing harmonies and the emotional arc of the song go to places that the Furnaces wouldn't -- at least not without some misdirection or speed bumps to balance out the weightiness.
Neither Friedberger's more direct lyrics -- indicated by the title 'Personal Record' -- nor her tendency to let these songs follow logical trajectories and reach their crowd-pleasing conclusions make for music as sonically original or impressive as her best Furnaces work, but they allow her to be great on completely different terms.
Not that Eleanor hasn't written from the heart before. But when she's been at her most emotionally vulnerable, Matthew has had a knack for erecting carnivals around her, providing complicating counterparts to her vocals. With that in mind, 'Echo and Encore' works perfectly as a bare and delicate ballad that finds Friedberger sounding unlike her usual deep and precise self. Over a jazzy acoustic bossa nova with punctuated piano inflections, Friedberger breaks hearts with her repeated sentiment "I adore you as before, your echo or your encore," making a personal connection not through her words but with simply with her voice.
She does likewise on 'You'll Never Know Me,' which gives way to a chaotic assembly of instruments in the chorus. The horns and keys nearly prove overwhelming, but they stop short of becoming atonal. Friedberger also seems to be on her guard, throwing in light spoken-word bits that dissolve when set against the song's core heartbreak. The playfulness a product of getting more personal.
And this dichotomy -- feigned defense maneuvers that don't quite mask the music's overarching sentiment -- ironically finds Eleanor using a different musical language than the Fiery Furnaces, but with a similar effect. Instead of dense, busy arrangements, we get the charming flute solo at the end of 'I Am the Past' or the romps 'She's a Mirror' and 'Stare At the Sun,' up-tempo diversions that remain thematic but obscure the truth with humor and attitude.
Friedberger is self-aware throughout the process, and from the album's title to the hyperbolic sentiment on 'I'll Never Be Happy Again,' she lets on that she's presenting an unmasked set of breakup songs. 'Personal Record' winds up coming full circle, both figuratively, in Friedberger's need to provide a foil for her words, and literally, in the cruise-ship-piano-bar conclusion of 'Singing Time.' While the next logical move might be for her to return to her band roots, 'Personal Record' demands that she continue down this path. In 2013's music scene, her solo voice isn't a luxury -- it's a necessity.