Sean Nelson is a writer, musician, and actor. His solo album, Make Good Choices, is available on Really Records. He is an editor at The Stranger. He currently lives in Seattle. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Even though it’s kind of lazy and wishful to seize on an opening line to confer an overarching thematic intention on an album, it’s hard not to be won over by a record that begins with the words, “I don’t want to bother you.” Fiery Furnaces singer Eleanor Friedberger’s second solo album, Personal Record, is a stealthy step onward from her 2011 debut, Last Summer, but neither one is at pains to grab your attention. Even the catchy bits, which abound, sound casual, almost offhand. This allows the humor woven into the lyrics to feel like asides murmured at a party, rather than punchlines delivered from a spotlit stage. It makes you feel invited, welcomed even, but never forced to pretend you’re having a better time than you’re having.
Personal Record is a masterful demonstration of a certain kind of coolness, not to be mistaken for the more obvious cool factor that shimmers around her like subway mist. I mean, obviously, Eleanor Friedberger is cool, which is to say the effortless, irreducible kind, the kind you don’t do but are, the kind even people who resent the abiding, inelastic tyranny of cool can’t help silently admiring. (Which is not to suggest I know or have ever met her, though I once saw her walking down Pike Street in Seattle, a few blocks down from where the Fiery Furnaces were playing that night, and almost crashed my car.) So yes, clearly, even in the cultural precinct where looking cool is the GDP, her coolness is striking, and to pretend not to notice would be perverse. However, that’s not the coolness I’m talking about.
I’m not sure the coolness I’m talking about is aesthetic, exactly, or even strictly intentional, but it is pervasive, and you don’t have to be Marshall McLuhan to spot it (which is fortunate, since he’s been dead for 33 years and Friedberger’s album only just came out). It’s in the way even the fast songs hang back, the way the romantic joys and agonies are described but not enacted, the way the pure pop elements are deployed casually, but with total commitment. (Plenty of bands can claim to sound like the Velvet Underground, but how many sound specifically like Loaded — or even, occasionally, like Squeeze?) And when the band sidles into a Brazilian mood on “Echo or Encore,” they do so without making a big, pastiche-y deal out of it. Most strikingly, though, the coolness in question can be identified by its contrast with the album’s main collaborator.
I’m sure I’m not the only person to whom the writing team of Friedberger and the novelist/songwriter Wesley Stace sounded unlikely. (Disclaimer: I have performed with Stace several times over the last 15 years and know him socially — well enough to no longer feel self-conscious pronouncing the “s” in “Wes” like a “z,” but not so well that I knew he had anything to do with this record when I signed on to write about it.) His songwriting style, as developed on roughly 20 records made under the name John Wesley Harding, is, among many other things, not much like Friedberger’s. Stace/Harding became known for taut, clever, self-aware pop songs whose wordplay is conspicuously deft (and therefore deftly conspicuous), and unfailingly strung over killer melodies. So, OK, not that different on paper, but miles away on disc. Harding’s songs are eager, gregarious, extroverted, and engaged in the long-resolved-yet-still-unaccountably-argued-about battle to show that pop songs about feelings can be smart and chew gum at the same time. It’s tempting to say that Stace’s latterly acclaim as a novelist feels more correct somehow than his 30-ish-year career as a singer/songwriter (and, briefly, notable exponent of the unlikely pop star school), but the truth — much to the chagrin of those songwriters whose novels remain frustratingly unwritten — is that some people really are both.
Stace’s most marked trait as a co-writer on the album, however, is his insatiable mania for ostentatious rhymes, the kind that either make you smile or cringe (or both, given that they require roughly the same facial muscles), and whose humor arises from their audacity. On the page, these are the kind of lyrics that leap off it, not merely by being effective pop epigrams (“If that was goodbye/then I must be high” on “Stare at the Sun”), but by their sheer internal relentlessness — “You met in September/and now it’s December/and you can’t remember her name” from “She’s a Mirror”; or the Morrissey-worthy “The one you whisper to when you call her/is taller than a basketballer” from “Other Boys”; or simpler ones like German/predetermine, no man’s land/sleight of hand, adore/before/encore. I’m not suggesting that rhyming lyrics is somehow a shocking new approach to pop songwriting, by the way, nor do I have any idea what the real division of labor between the two writers was. But, on “When I Knew,” when Friedberger sings “I met her in my bedroom at a party/Halloween/she was wearing a pair of overalls/so I sang ‘Come On, Eileen,’” (p.s. great line), there are some layers to consider.
The song details the courtship of a teenage boy and girl that includes listening to Soft Machine records and writing songs together. Had Stace sung “When I Knew,” it might sound like nostalgia for the archetypal romantic fantasy of a certain kind of nerdy boy. But through Friedberger’s voice, the story, its genders blurred, delivered of the potential mossy madeleine factor, becomes, if not exactly universal, then at least more complex and intriguing. Alluring even. And still funny. It will come as no surprise to any Fiery Furnaces devotee that Eleanor Friedberger’s singing is full of brilliant, uninflected wit. But the collaboration with Stace, whose humor is anything but deadpan, seems to enhance her authorial presence, possibly because it offers her the freedom not to commit to one identity. Over gentle acoustic guitar, distant chimes, and a low sax’s subtle melodic lead, “I Am the Past” offers a series of wry variations on its own title. “I am the past/you’ll never forget me” and “you have no idea what happened before me” and “I am the ghost of ex-girlfriends/but mostly I’m me.” The lyric is funny, but not just funny. Its cleverness serves to advance the singer’s enigma, while gently nodding to the absurdity of songs that do that sort of thing.
Personal Record makes a subject, rather than a declaration, of the self, which differentiates it from your typical first or second solo album by a notable member of a notable band. The record is aptly named, but also a pun; the personal-ity arises as much from the anecdotal matter-of-factness of the songs, as from the fluidity of their perspectives. And freeing the singer allows the singing to be the real star.
Friedberger’s voice is an utterly singular marriage of affectlessness and characterization. It’s conversational yet musical, laconic yet expressive, unadorned yet festooned with glimmering facets. Above all, it sounds reflexive, a sound that could only come out of one person, and maybe the only sound that person could make. (You could try your whole life to imitate her vocal tone and never even get past the doorman.) Some singers are chameleons, actors, impersonators, talents. Some just sound like they sound and its up to you to decide if you can handle it. That quality makes singers like Friedberger divisive, but it also accounts for the majority of great rock voices. In the context of the Fiery Furnaces, her singing was often a point of contrast with the relentless allusion-invention index of the songs, allowing her to serve variously as narrator, main character, and bystander. On her solo albums, the voice is fully integrated with the rock-people-playing-pop-songs vibe, but it’s still the thing you notice, the thing you love, or the thing you don’t. (I do.)
I suppose there’s an argument to be made that the kind of distance that allows a song to comment on itself even as its themes play out also puts a distance between the listener and the music. But in a time when pop musicians are expected (and increasingly willing) to prostrate themselves to be as accessible and demonstrative as they possibly can, it feels good to be beguiled by a voice, without being exhorted, cajoled, or seduced by a singer. I keep coming back to that opening line, “I don’t want to bother you” (too late!), not to mention the polite lament at the end of the album, “singing time is over.” I know it’s not that rock to be pleased when a record shows a sense of decorum, but we live in times which are not that rock. This only bolsters the pleasure of listening to Personal Record, which has rock deep in its marrow — deep enough to give it the confidence to let you come to it.