I am hard-pressed to think of many contemporary artists who are as literal, as direct, or as achingly sentimental as Eleanor Friedberger. Of course, by Eleanor Friedberger, I refer to the singer-songwriter, not to the co-founder of The Fiery Furnaces. The latter figure has long been a beguiling but frustratingly oblique figure, more likely to satisfy herself than her followers, with an insistence on indulgent, anti-epic virtuosity. That Eleanor was known to swaddle autobiography in a pretense of absurdist imagery, to bury emotion under layers of squelching, scatological noise. Even when she would deign to offer up some tangible, hummable melody — that is, when she wasn’t ascetically mulling over a single phrase for the entire duration of a song — it felt arch, sarcastic, self-consciously vaudevillian. What she lacked in restraint, she made up for with prolificacy — seven albums in six years, nearly all brimming with inspiration. She gave you more, even when you wanted less.
This other Eleanor, more gallant than goofus, does few of those things, though she does seem to get hung up on a choice phrase every now and again. Eleanor Friedberger, the one I mean to recommend — though, I would suggest you explore the work of both — is less productive, less evasive, less creative, less, well, everything. I mean that as a compliment and nothing less: there are limitations to all things, prodigiousness and feverish inspiration included.
Her first album, Last Summer, was named so because of the year-long delay between writing/recording and when it was ready for release. It was a modest collection, with 10 songs, less than 40 unfussy minutes in total. This Eleanor, it bears noting, is fond of literal titles. Her second album is called Personal Record, and it offers precisely that.
With Personal Record, Eleanor commits even more strongly to straightforward, sentimental, and concise songcraft. Although sentimentality has long been out of fashion, or perhaps for that very reason, there is something admirable, if not altogether miraculous, about the lack of pretension on display. Whereas Last Summer flitted from Laurel Canyon lite-rock to Stevie Wonderful funk, from spectral balladry to Tropicália-tinged indie, Personal Record sticks unerringly to a steady, politely rocking pop, a style so narrowly confined, so classical, so lacking in irony that it practically invites derision. Sincerity makes for an easy target.
And there’s no confusing the likes of “I Am the Past” or “When I Knew” for anything other than sincere, but when the writing is this sharp — wistful, jangly chords, impeccable diction, well-chosen proper nouns — what is often considered embarrassing becomes an unlikely source of power. Indeed, “When I Knew” is a pop music master class unto itself, perfectly and painfully detailing the early stages of an adolescent fling, from infatuation at first sight of “the tops of her white socks,” through flirtation and beyond. “I know I couldn’t get her out of my head, and then we ended up…” she sings, before eliding somewhat smugly. The rollicking guitar-work betrays a deep melancholy, a vivid recollection of time long since gone. The ecstasies it details give way to a litany of adult agonies.
“Ever since I met you, I’ll never be happy again,” goes the chorus of the next song. “I’m far from the town, in the suburbs of your pleasure/ I’ve been in exile so long,” she sings on the one after. And so on. But lest you think Personal Record is somehow mawkish or maudlin, you should know that Friedberger spares herself no mercies and is frank in ways that few AOR artists — Fleetwood Mac and Carly Simon notwithstanding — have permitted themselves to be.
Personal Record provides exactly what it promises: a tender but unflinching catalog of Friedberger’s romantic failures. In case it wasn’t obvious enough, the album culminates with “Other Boys,” where she runs through a long list of mostly regrettable lovers. Throughout its course, the song title takes on several meanings. Friedberger first uses it to taunt a soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, after she herself is caught cheating. “There are other boys, too. But don’t let it worry you.” As “Other Boys” continues, Friedberger finds herself at times the spurned party, and the words become a mantra of acceptance. After six minutes, just when it feels like Friedberger is building up to some loud catharsis, the song ends prematurely, fading quickly to black, a frustrating but fitting reminder that all things end, whether or not we want them to.
Friedberger ends the album with “Singing Time” — one more in a long line of reflexive titles — which sounds, at first, like another slow, murky ballad. But after two minutes of reminding you sadly that “singing time is over,” drums blow through the gloom, and Eleanor breaks into a higher key, and then at last, the release you were denied one song prior is granted.
That other Eleanor had difficulty knowing when to end a song and how to sort the wheat from the chaff. She would never have denied herself the chance to rave on, even when cutting short would be more emotionally satisfying. That other Eleanor doesn’t have much interest in emotions, at least not those of an ecstatically juvenile sort. Sequencing mattered to her, but not as much as instant gratification. But this Eleanor, the Personal Record Eleanor, is careful to choose her words, to make more from less, to know exactly when to hit the emotional notes we crave.
And never mind that sentimentality is unpopular and oft-maligned. There is a delicacy, a complexity to the emotions of Personal Record, that mere irony or cynicism could never afford. Even with her final words, Friedberger finds ways to twist your guts, to weave feelings right through you. “Though neither one had had enough, in or out, below above, though you whispered sweet and soft, he would not love, he would not love.” You will be left, this Eleanor tells you. You will be left wanting more.