The Fiery Furnaces

I'm Going Away

(Thrill Jockey; 2009)

By Christopher Alexander | 7 August 2009

I admit it: I was way too hard on Widow City (2007). Time has been much kinder to the record than I was; I find myself revisiting “Ex-Guru” and the proggy, silly “Navy Nurse” as often as I do staples like “Chris Michaels,” “Evergreen,” or the single version of “Tropical Iceand.” The band’s detractors even admit to the ineffable lilt of Eleanor Friedberger’s voice and Matthew’s melodic facility: both abound on their previous studio album, which further features exciting ensemble playing completely absent on my beloved Bitter Tea (2006) or Blueberry Boat (2004). It’s a good record. You should steal buy it, if you want.

I mention all this because I’m on record that Widow City found the siblings Friedberger in a creative rut, exhausted and marking time. If that is true, then I now have the problem of determining what that makes I’m Going Away, unquestionably the most sedate, nonthreatening, and accessible album the band’s ever made. The twelve songs last all of forty-seven minutes, and, save for one herk-a-jerk middle eight in “Drive to Dallas,” none of them stray far if ever from the band at its mid-tempo, ’70s-humping finest. Dallas is about as exotic a location as the lyric sheet is willing to go—or a wedding chapel in Manchester, or else just “away” somewhere. There’s nothing about, say, the North Taiwanese Strippers and Waitresses Union armed with only a four hundred page charter in an archaic dialect (all typed backwards in smeared burgundy print) and Billy Ripkin’s rookie card. There are those who will rejoice at such a development; this listener felt guarded the entirety of his first samplng of the album, unsure if the band would pull a gear shift so dramatic it would literally short circuit my iPod. None came.

The obvious precedent in the Friedberger canon is the band’s relatively straightforward debut Gallowsbird Bark (2003), but this doesn’t ring true on close listening. Gallowsbird found its footing on blues and folk-rock signifiers, but with a heavy dose of skronk, wanderlust, and a mischievous monkeywrenching of the form. It earned the duo a lot of obvious White Stripes comparisons, but if that band were classic rock played through broken speakers, even on their first record the Fiery Furnaces sounded like classic rock played through a Speak and Spell, or perhaps a bad dial-up connection. While the instant album’s title track is an old blues saw, it’s a much more conservative take than they would have played it on their first album. It comes off like a Cream exercise. Surprisingly, what this reviewer hears are the cadences of gospel—see “The End is Near,” “Ray Bouvier,” “Cut the Cake,” “Even in the Rain,” and closer “Take Me Round Again,” the sole cut to wander north of six minutes. Adopting the old trick of chorale rounds, there’s no abrupt tempo changes, no sectional splicing, no fooling.

As on Widow City, Matthew once again calls in actual drummer Robert D’amico to provide the beat, and while he duplicates a more satisfying experience than their more adventurous albums, some of these songs come dangerously close to easy-listening. What saves them is the strength of his writing: not only his deft, jazz-influenced melodies but the way he inverts them, as in a funhouse mirror, throughout the course of an arrangement—they float easily between parallel minor and major modes on songs like “Drive to Dallas” and “Cut the Cake.” His leads on this album are also some of the most hilarious, anti-anthemic guitar playing I’ve heard on a rock record since Jonny Greenwood’s solo on “Paranoid Android.” He couldn’t have possibly chosen a worse guitar tone for the mindless wheedly-deedly on “Ray Bouvier,” while the stereo ping-ponging licks of “Even in the Rain” are reminiscent of two nervous lovers asking each other “is this how you do it?” before they both hit a note so awful, one speaker reflecting it back on the other, that you can hear them realize that this is most certainly not how you do it. But even these solos are dwarfed by the insouciant, what-the-fuck-ever scale climb of “Charmaine Champagne,” which may have been influenced by Miles Davis’ nervous, fusion-era stuttering and wailing, but instead sounds like Friedberger decided to soldier through his Digitech whammy pedal malfunctioning. These are high compliments; they’re the closest thing this record comes to winking at the listener, and they’re totally welcome.

I’m Going Away is the first record where Eleanor is the primary lyricist since Gallowsbird, and she trades outright narration for thematic development. Many of the lyrics seem to refer to the different stages of a relationship, beginning with the ending and meandering back to the start. There are digressions: “Charmaine Champagne” is more about a bad influence then a bad lover. But it comes to a head on the riff happy, pounding “Staring at the Steeple,” where eloping becomes a nightmare and the altar becomes an abattoir, and for all his dramatic aspirations, Matthew has never written a stanza as foreboding as “They say there’s two women in there / One wears a robe, one wears a crystal / One keeps time while the other keeps a pistol.” (It could very well be that Matthew wrote this line, of course, but seeing as how there are no references to the fourteenth apple eaten by John Raymond Jay’s fourth son, handed to him by the 5th Congress of the 20th District of East Olympus Mons, I doubt it.)

The Furnaces have never made a record more musically and emotionally direct, nor turned in performances as well-honed as “Charmaine Champagne” and “Staring at the Steeple.” But the experience has left me wondering whether, even if I was excessively caustic with Widow City, I was necessarily wrong. Warner Brothers cartoons remain my favorite Rosetta Stone to explain the band at its most manic, so forgive me: in the famous “Duck Amok” short, an unseen, Godlike animator (in the narrative of the cartoon it was Bugs Bunny, but for all intents and purposes it was real life director Chuck Jones) took the basic, elemental character of Daffy Duck and proceeded to rob him of everything—his voice, his body, his essential Duckness—for his sheer perverse pleasure, the animator as God saying, “look what I can do!” It’s remarkable brain candy, a masterpiece, seriously up there with Annie Hall or The Great Gatsby in the halls of Holy-Shit-Essential North American Documents of Artistic Expression (20th Century Edition). What pushes it over the top is that all of the formal, rule-breaking hijinks only proved that the basic personality of Daffy Duck was unmaleable. He was still a pugnacious, consternating glory hog, in any costume, voice or setting, easily recognizable as Daffy fucking Duck. That’s what I felt listening to the Furnaces’ recent live album, Remember (I disobeyed the cover’s admonition, experiencing it exclusively in 140 minute bursts). Here was a pair of minds so certain of their songs, so in love with the possibilities of their given medium, and so at the top of their powers musically that they knew that no matter how badly they toyed with it—destroying it, even—“Blueberry Boat” was always a longwinded sea shanty gone wrong, even if it more closely resembled a Ramones outtake. (Though, as much as I enjoyed that album, I see no need to revisit my total disgust with the Bitter Tea tourdate I saw in Seattle, which I described as a “hatefuck.”)

But now, letting my iPod shuffle past I’m Going Away, and wondering if, for all its charms and strengths, I will ever feel the need to listen to it again, I can’t help but wonder if the band has arrived at the opposite position. That is to say that, for all the love they have for the form, all the attention to craft that Matthew Friedberger shows in his arrangements and productions, and for all the lissome qualities of Eleanor Friedberger’s voice and dramatic lyrics, it seems that they’ve submerged and finally discarded their personality. Perhaps it’s unfair, and perhaps it’s too soon: no record featuring “Charmaine Champagne” should be so easily dismissed, and the band’s plans for a “silent record,” so obviously a wan comment on the In Rainbows (2007) backlash fomented by bands and labels realizing that the money is drying up, had me laughing harder than I had in a while. That sounded like the Furnaces, a band so sure of its material it could leave it in the hands of amateurs. I’m Going Away is a good record, it just doesn’t really sound like the Fiery Furnaces. Though for some, I’m sure, that’ll be very welcome news indeed.