If you’re dropping into Eleanor Friedberger‘s solo work for the first time with Personal Record, don’t fret: the former Fiery Furnaces singer begins her second solo effort in media res. “I don’t want to bother you,” she sings right away on the opening track of the same name, with a sense of urgency that immediately seeps into your veins, right into your heart. That is if you weren’t already hooked in by 2011′s Last Summer, of course. The track begins an astounding and varied collection of songs, all alternating in mood to create a pleasant pace for the entire 46-minute affair. That might be the biggest strength to be found in Personal Record‘s grand toolbox of tricks: the sequencing is as good as you’ll see on any album this or any other year. Alternating between slow-tempo ballad odes to (mostly) dying love and upbeat Americana jaunts, the album shifts gears seamlessly like a fine-tuned muscle car.
That’s not an empty analogy, either, as the biggest improvement from Last Summer comes not from the consistently excellent songwriting and vocals from Friedberger; instead, it’s the backing band that steps up here, providing a muscular feel that was harder to find on her solo debut. The drums demand more attention, as they’re brought further up in the mix, and while they’re not asked to do too much, you notice their importance immediately. The guitars strike cleanly (aside from certain moments of exhilaratingly unexpected distortion, like on “Tomorrow Tomorrow”) and confidently, switching back and forth between neat chords and quick but memorable riffs. This gives Personal Record more of an immediate quality, allowing each song its own space to breath.
Yet, it still is Friedberger that shines brightest here. Her voice has long been a personal favorite, due to the ease with which she goes from her talk-singing in the verses to the almost pleading yelps in the choruses. It’s almost formulaic and would be done to a detriment by a singer of lesser quality, but Eleanor is up to the task. Take the previously released “I’ll Never Be Happy Again”, which tells a story from multiple perspectives (more on this in a bit), yet never gets confusing due to the different emotions portrayed in Friedberger’s smooth vocals. Or maybe the Hall & Oates-cribbing “She’s a Mirror”, which takes the menace of “Maneater” to town on the verses before exploding in a joyous sounding rendition of the song’s title in the chorus. It turns the song from a doom-and-gloom paranoid track into a multi-faceted jam, one that begs an immediate press of the replay button.
Her songwriting continues to be a fascinating mix of the personal and the observatory, as Friedberger plays with pronouns as well as anyone currently creating rock and roll music. The “I” and the “you” are present in every song, but it’s never quite clear which is which; sometimes, as in the stellar “When I Knew”, it appears that she’s switching genders with ease. The “we” also makes a plethora of appearances, but it’s never a particularly joyous “we,” as Friedberger explores all of the corners of her mind and her pains. It’s a breathless endeavor, and you just have to hang on for the ride.
While nothing here reaches the heights of Last Summer’s “Roosevelt Island” or “I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight”, it’s not a loss, not really. Her voice is more confident, and her themes are more developed, providing a more cohesive collection of songs that chooses to coast at a high level rather than hitting peaks and valleys. If this is, in fact, your first experience with Eleanor Friedberger‘s music, it’s probable that it won’t be your last. While Fiery Furnaces may in fact be over and her brother Matthew is off creating some new bizarre project, Eleanor has focused on her strengths and given the world yet another fantastic work of solo magic. What more could you and I and we ask for?