The Fiery Furnaces may be the most divisive band in indie rock. When their second album Blueberry Boat came out in 2004, Pitchfork rated it 9.6 out of 10, praising it as a thorny, difficult album that nonetheless rewards the listener with endless sonic delights. NME gave it 1 out of 10 and called it “toe-curlingly unlistenable.” The band moderated some of their more divisive impulses on later albums, but by the time they announced their hiatus in 2011, they were already known as a hugely ambitious, sometimes brilliant, and sometimes annoying proggy, jazzy, bluesy mess of a band.
Which is why vocalist Eleanor Friedberger’s solo albums are so weird. They’re weird because they frankly aren’t that weird at all. Friedberger is the singer of The Fiery Furnaces, sharing songwriting duties with her brother Matt. Her last record, 2011’s Last Summer, was a breezy, smart, deeply felt breakup album, as if Joni Mitchell were produced by Paul McCartney. Her new album, Personal Record, is even better.
Personal Record is in many ways a straight-ahead rock album. The guitar sounds like Elvis Costello, the keys sound like Warren Zevon, and Friedberger’s voice sounds like a straight-laced Patti Smith. But it’s clearly in no way tossed off. Every detail, from the synth-augmented nonsense choir on “I’ll Never Be Happy Again” to the twitchy drums on “You’ll Never Know Me,” every detail is chosen to add emotional color to Eleanor’s bizarrely specific and highly literate lyrics. Among her indie rock contemporaries, perhaps only The Hold Steady are able to so effectively combine lyrical gymnastics with the sophomoric thrill of a great rock song.
A few of the songs on Last Summer dragged, most notably “The Inn of the Seventh Ray.” On the new record, even slow numbers like “I am the Past” are immediately listenable. That cut shows that Friedberger has learned the lesson so many of her verbose, ambitious forbearers (see Springsteen, Bruce) learned decades ago: sometimes it’s nice to sing with approximately the speed and usage of normal conversation. “I am the Past” is narrated, literally, by the past, which haunts listeners with “I am the ghost of ex-girlfriends, but mostly I’m me, I’m the past to infinity.” This line sticks with you, but it sticks because the ambiguity of the last phrase is intriguing, not because she packs 17 syllables into a measure.
Not every song on the album displays her newfound appreciation for lyrical minimalism, with “When I Knew” narrating a youthful fling from staying up late listening to Soft Machine, roaming around London looking for a replacement needle for a record player, and racing around on antique rollerskates. Even here, with Friedberger showing off her penchant for songs as narratives of minutae, the guitar work is great, the solo rips, and the harmonies are perfect.
Another standout song is “Stare at the Sun,” which was released as a single a few months ago but finds new life in the context of the album. Coming off the minor-key shuffle of “I’ll Never Be Happy Again,” the big dumb riff of “Stare at the Sun” sounds more vital than ever, and the lyrics’ will-they-won’t-they restlessness suddenly seem like a last-ditch grab at a happiness that seems more and more elusive every year.
This is the kind of album you can dissect for months, but it’s also the kind of album you can put on at a barbeque. It provides for this summer what The Intelligence’s Everyone’s Got it Easy But Me provided for last. It’s a fun, catchy, summer rock album for people who are too smart for fun, catchy, summer rock albums.