Let’s call it an error at the record pressing plant. Eleanor Friedberger’s first solo album was a record about its creator, a record whose faster, louder songs came out in clicking spurts and whose more exposed songs snort at you for using the word exuberant in any context, even appropriate ones. It was an album that showed you specific places, diminutive parks in Brooklyn, clothing strewn bedrooms it would not clean up for you. The places didn’t have to make sense to you, the listener, because they formed such a devastating logic to Friedberger, and that logic, the way it came out, was enough to keep listeners interested. These songs caught you, regardless of whether you thought they were catchy. Maybe it was an early spring record, the kind of thing which eases you from one kind of waking up to another.
Her more recent solo album doubles up on the SPF just in case, then gives you the best summer day of your life. Fresh flowers with little hairs on the stems, beautiful paperbacks sitting in free boxes on stoops and curbs, sweating beer bottles, gas settling on a beach-bound highways. It’s a summer album.
The first album was called Last Summer. The more recent one, Personal Record.
Personal Record is not. Personal, that it. For one thing, Friedberger worked with British songwriter/novelist John Wesley Harding on these songs. Between the lack of ego in collaboration and Friedberger’s expressed desire to write about characters, as opposed to herself, not to mention fudge gender norms a bit, these songs feel like stories. But here’s Friedberger’s thought-provoking quote for me from a recent interview about Personal Record
I wanted to write beautiful love songs that could be about you, your ex-boyfriend, or your aunt. Unlike Last Summer, which is so specific and so clearly about me, I think anybody can insert themselves into these songs
As a poet whose work delves into the very thorny issue of speaking for/about the other, I can tell you it’s a tricky a game, to write in/for the universal. The issue is, either your work ends up not being as universal as you’d think (“we’ve all experienced the heartbreak of loosing a pet falcon the nest our three year old son designed on the porch of our cabin in the Andes!”) or being so universal it means nothing (“so…you like…stuff?” “yeah, stuffs pretty ok.”). Friedberger has an interesting way of dealing with this- the distinct purposes of her verses and choruses, her lyrics and her music.
In “When I Knew”‘s second verse, our narrator is introduced to Soft Machine by an older, more cultured crush, then can’t find the album anywhere, except one drippy basement record store. In the third verse, the object of affection sings in a band where the narrator playing back-up. In the fourth verse, the love interest almost rollerskates into our narrator on a big hill in San Francisco. Maybe different stories altogether, or maybe some kind of When Harry Met Sally tableau. Regardless, the verses are specific. I’ve never listened to Soft Machine. Somebody running into someone on roller skates seems like it would happen on a syndicated sitcom on TBS.
What holds the song together is the chorus, acting as a thesis statement. “That what when I knew I was wrong wrong wrong all along.” Even if you don’t feel comfortable or at home in the specific images of the verses (and chances are, given their specificity, that you won’t), that chorus and that music (45mph drums, Saturday messed sheets guitars, the whole thing slightly sepia toned) will give you something you can grasp onto. We’ve all had those moments when things have changed, the introduction of a person makes us happy when before we were not, or makes us restless when previously content. We’ve all found ourselves so totally wrong all of a sudden that repeating wrong three times is a good way to capture it. That has happened to us all.
That’s how Personal Record works- choruses that are brashly universal (“Love is an exquisite kind of pain/And since I saw you I’ll never be happy again” from “I’ll Never Be Happy Again”) and short-story-caliber details in the verses (“In the back of the of taxi, you turned off the TV/And read me a book on your phone” from “Stare at the Sun”), and music as direct as express lanes that cues you in to the emotional weight of any given song.
At its worst moments, though, Friedberger takes it too far. She can perhaps sell an undeniably cheesy line like “Well I couldn’t get her out of my head, so I got her out of hers instead” once, but repeating it, drilling it in, becomes grating. Likewise, the repetition of the titular metaphor of “Echo or Encore” (a person stands in for both) dulls what might be an interesting song for me. The litany of “Other Boys” starts out as an intimidate confrontation- I know there are other women. Yet the longer it goes on, the more it becomes quippy and less emotionally immediate.
But part of me thinks that’s to be expected. Frieberger’s previous band The Fiery Furnaces showed off with their music, and as a fairly new solo artist, Eleanor Friedberger is showing off with her words. When most of her words are so on point, when they are doing so much work with so little effort or strain, you’ll forgive her when she goes a bit overboard. It’s possible that, like me, you’ll even be able to smile at the excess.
Also, how about a summer jam or two