To find the jump-off for the Fiery Furnaces’ I’m Going Away, it is useful to return to the band’s 2003 debut Gallowsbird’s Bark. An injection of pre-rock and roll era sounds into the so-called garage rock revival, it was a raw music revue—a blues/folk/gospel/cabaret catchall that made room for plaintive numbers like “Rub-Alcohol Blues”, the up-tempo stomp of “Asthma Attack”, swaying sing-along “Up in the North”, and jagged, raw-boned pieces like “Don’t Dance Her Down” and “Crystal Clear”. Among reactions to the album was a too-convenient pigeonholing of the band, normally with reference to other superficially similar acts like the White Stripes, whose members had posed as brother and sister early in their career. But the Fiery Furnaces’ Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger—actual siblings—represented a very different interpretation of related influences. Whereas Jack and Meg White played the role of lo-fi blues punk roustabouts, the Friedberger characters were from the beginning more literate, well-traveled types prone to a distinctive brand of experimentation. These bands didn’t need to battle, because their courses were equally valid, fresh revitalizations of the building blocks of rock.
Instead of continuing to refine the sound established on their first album, the Fiery Furnaces next took the less-traveled road of the rock opera. Such ambition is a potential career-killer, but Blueberry Boat was an exceptionally crafted work of art—matching and/or surpassing adventurous epic forerunners like Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, The Who’s A Quick One and the Bee Gees’ Odessa. Those not enamored of the album wondered when the band would return to the accessibility of its debut. Album number three, EP, appeared to largely accomplish that, but it was effectively a compilation of previously released singles material. The band’s next set of all new work, fourth outing Rehearsing My Choir, went to (some would say over) the brink of style and coherence, as it abstrusely told the life story of Friedberger grandmother Olga Sarantos. It was a wayward album, narrated/sung by Eleanor and her grandmother over Matthew’s mixture of organs and prepared piano. Yet repeated listens revealed it to be the band’s most emotionally resonant work by far, and in terms of originality and invention, it actually rivaled Blueberry Boat.
Now, a few albums later—all curious and interesting, but none achieving the grandeur of the band’s very best work—the Fiery Furnaces emerge with the smooth I’m Going Away. The product of a gradual scaling back from wild innovation, it is a set of songs that resumes the comparatively modest scope of Gallowsbird’s Bark. This is not, however, a strictly back-to-basics re-tread. Surprising in its simplicity, I’m Going Away reveals the band’s relatively unexplored proclivity for radio-friendly compositions. Label Thrill Jockey describes the album as “‘70s sunshine-glazed piano pop”, however less does not constitute MOR within this particular approach, which retains much of the band’s idiosyncratic appeal despite being so straightforward.
The album opens with the shuffling title track, which features the kind of repetitive phrasing that appears in much of the band’s work. Eleanor’s rushed, insistent delivery falls somewhere between speaking and singing and is a good fit for the song’s central avowal. She ensures that we quite understand she’s going away! But her voice is altogether prettier and more delicate on “Drive to Dallas”—a song that more directly conveys the AM Gold aims of producer Matthew Friedberger and recordist/mixer/bassist Jason Loewenstein. The opening piano and guitar lines announce the chorus, in a kind of mini-prelude that occurs more than once on the album. This is a simple technique that injects instant familiarity when the proper choruses arrive. Accessibility of this sort belies the fussier, shape-shifting tendencies of a lot of the band’s catalog.
The poignant lyrics connect to the leave-taking theme that runs throughout the Fiery Furnaces’ work, but the scale is much smaller. Rather than hopping on a jet or boat or astrally projecting, the subject of “Drive to Dallas” struggles with an emotionally charged, reactionary road trip. The song is lyrically reminiscent of Lucinda Williams’ “Jackson” or the real-life tale of the jilted Lisa Nowak. Also, to great you-are-there effect, the mid-tempo transitions into the rapid pace of someone on the run before settling back into a comfortable groove. To use music to illustrate the lyrics has traditionally been a part of the Fiery Furnaces’ dynamism, and the band is always careful to implement this technique in a way that suits the album’s overall aesthetic. So unlike the “whistle” of Bitter Tea‘s “Whistle Rhapsody” or the “noise from the traffic and construction” of Rehearsing My Choir‘s “Does it Remind You of When?” the functional sounds here extend the narration in a sonically harmonious way rather than through interruption or dissonance.
On “The End is Near”, Matthew’s piano brings to mind “Up the River” from his solo album Winter Women. Matthew and Eleanor both contribute vocals to the song, and the blend of their voices with the memorable melody renders the events that led to a moment of reckoning as not being so bad, a reality that the lyrics confront before deciding “I’m not trying to reminisce, no.” This wavering propels the song and suggests a continuation of whatever prompted the earlier drive to Dallas. But the album does not wallow in gloom, as “Charmaine Champagne” picks up the pace and describes adventures with the title character—a kind of “bad girl” guide for Eleanor, who says of Champagne, “She’s gonna get me folked up, fairly beat”. This is a wild night to remember, indeed, but it seems to conclude more positively than the intoxication tale of “A Candymaker’s Knife in My Handbag” from Rehearsing My Choir. Eleanor’s sometimes-underestimated vocals are also totally commanding on “Cut the Cake”. She is alternately gleeful, jealous, and conniving as she delivers the story of a juicy piece of news that becomes an obsession.
“Staring at the Steeple” unfolds less like a pop song than anything else on I’m Going Away, but for longtime listeners it does offer loose allusions to the dueling clergy and ex-gurus that populate earlier Fiery Furnaces lyrics, as well as a “Widow City”-style drum breakdown towards the end. From there, the second half of the album maintains more oblique narratives than the first half, but the music compensates by becoming even catchier. “Ray Bouvier” is another song that benefits from Matthew’s under-utilized singing, which provides an excellent counterpoint to that of his sister. The number also basks in a couple of irresistible electric guitar solos, but purposefully ends on a sour note, which introduces “Keep Me in the Dark”, an ode to denial that like “The End is Near”, succeeds in contrasting the song’s memorable hook with a not-so-pleasant lyrical scenario. A false start to “Lost at Sea”, which closes “Keep Me in the Dark”, is distracting, even though it does connect the two forlorn tales. Drummer Bob D’Amico keeps “Lost at Sea” from becoming too meandering and includes accents at all the right places. His dexterous contributions to the band, from a virtuosic performance on Widow City to the tasteful anchoring throughout this album, should not be overlooked.
After “Cups and Punches”, which is in essence a retooled reprise of “Charmaine Champagne”, the band finishes the album with the jubilant, swinging, “Take Me Round Again”. It is the longest song on the album and also the most rewarding. The tune of the verse evokes “After the Gold Rush”, which might be unintentional but somehow suits the nostalgic, romantic perspective of the song. And the chorus begs to be sung as a round, which is absolutely rare in the Fiery Furnaces’ catalog. “Take Me Round Again” is a coda that brings I’m Going Away to an exultant conclusion, and it also dovetails so agreeably with the musical impulses the band exhibited on its debut. It is not productive to speculate on how long this more user-friendly direction will last. Instead, the album is best appreciated as a pleasurable pop treat from a group whose vision is ever broadening.