Eleanor Friedberger

Personal Record

(Merge; 2013)

By Maura McAndrew | 20 June 2013

Eleanor Friedberger’s favorite subject is relationships—and, refreshingly, not just the romantic kind. 2011’s Last Summer found her ruminating on a relationship with a city, and all of the smaller emotional pieces to that particular puzzle. Personal Record is, as the title implies, even more focused on the micro. There’s not necessarily a uniting theme on this one, though, as the characters in these songs and their dealings with one another are so sharply defined as to be almost painful. Friedberger is Jens Lekman-like in her ability to tell engaging, complete stories by way of a few pointed details, and Personal Record is rife with these, many of which resonate long after the record is over.

Last Summer felt like a big departure for Friedberger after the quirky angularity of Fiery Furnaces, but many of those songs still maintained hints of the Furnaces’ spiky sound. Personal Record, though it follows the same ’70s-inspired pop template, still manages to push further away from the quirky or “challenging”—one can feel Friedberger’s resistance to classic balladry steadily wearing away. And in her hands, this is a good thing: Friedberger is a singular artist, anyway, one who manages to sound bold even over the simplest Bacharach-style melody. Take “You’ll Never Know Me,” “Echo or Encore,” and “Singing Time”: all three float rather than jerk, and build traditionally to a synth-aided catharsis. There is even—gasp—flute, an instrument I loathe, on “I am the Past,” but it’s a testament to Friedberger’s elegant way with words (“I’m the ghost of ex-girlfriends / But mostly I’m me / I’m the past to infinity”) that even I can stomach this uber-‘70s dalliance. “She’s a Mirror,” similarly, ups the cheese factor with its Hall & Oates beat and Stevie Nicks lyrics, but Friedberger makes it a lot of fun.

“When I Knew” is the record’s standout, a catalog of friendship/relationship stories told in Friedberger’s impressively descriptive-yet-lean style. It’s the song that most strongly recalls the best of Last Summer in its ambition, breadth, and depth. “When I Knew” actually came to my mind when watching Frances Ha, a movie about an intense female friendship, as in the song Friedberger explores the genesis of many platonic relationships—a subject that can be just as interesting, if not more so, than romance. Anyone who’s ever had a “friend crush” can relate as Friedberger sings of meeting a friend in school who also “liked weird music,” and being intrigued by small details: “I could see the tops of her white socks / From underneath her desk.” Older, she meets another intriguing woman at a Halloween party in an awkward way: “She was wearing overalls / So I sang ‘Come on, Eileen’ / I was being slightly mean / And then she just smiled / And it made me feel childish.” It’s an amazing thing to witness, the way Friedberger stocks a song like “When I Knew”—only six-odd minutes long—full of characters we feel like we know. The song barrels along, much like Last Summer highlight “Roosevelt Island,” knocking you out and leaving you breathless by the end; a great novel down and ready to read the sequel.

“Other Boys” is the other awe-inspiring track on offer here. A different kind of song than “When I Knew,” it deals more in the abstract but is no less effective. It’s a knife-to-the-gut waltz about infidelity and open relationships, centering on a passive-aggressive conversation between a couple: “I know about her / Does she know about me?” And the triumphant sadness of the refrain, “There are other boys, too / But don’t let it worry you.” This spot-on feel for the way couples communicate crops up all over Personal Record, similarly in the album opener, “I Don’t Want to Bother You” (which says it all in the title). In “Other Boys,” Friedberger also uses metaphor to intensify the song’s queasy sense of fatalism. She sings of a “long, tall pony with the thick dark mane”: “You share her feed at the compound trough / And you climb back on / When she throws you off.”

Personal Record doesn’t always have the focus and sense of place that made Last Summer great, but it’s pop music on a grander scale, both in sound and theme. Here Friedberger shows that her wit and extraordinary writing talent can flourish in the space of a traditional song—no mean feat. But no matter what constraints she’s working in, and even if her chosen topic is as universal as human relationships, Eleanor Friedberger will never be traditional. On Personal Record, as on Last Summer, it’s her voice, her language, and her stories, rendered with depth and humor, that will stick with you.