You’ve got to believe it’s no coincidence that Eleanor Friedberger’s second solo effort is named Personal Record, because that’s exactly what it sounds like. Considering that Friedberger made her name as a mischief-making wordsmith in the enigmatic brother-sister duo the Fiery Furnaces, there’s something especially refreshing and welcome about Personal Record achieving Friedberger’s personal record for being personal on a record. While it could sometimes feel like the Fiery Furnaces were trying too hard to make sure everyone knew how offbeat their music was, with the results ranging wildly from brilliantly eccentric to willfully frustrating, going solo has seemingly freed Eleanor Friedberger up to show just what a naturally talented songwriter she is. Yeah, some of that impression might simply be the product of Friedberger making music under her own name, but whereas her 2011 debut Last Summer seemed as if she was still unlearning some of her earlier habits, Personal Record feels like she’s coming into her own, more at ease with who she is — and can be — as an artist.
Mind you, that doesn’t mean Friedberger is getting touchy-feely and confessional on you on Personal Record, since she doesn’t often make it clear whether she’s getting autobiographical or, as she’s wont to do, telling other people’s stories with a greater immediacy and warmth than before. Instead, what makes it seem like you’re getting closer to what Friedberger’s about on Personal Record is the inviting, easygoing feel of the album, which exudes an effortless, unadulterated cool that never has to make a conspicuous song-and-dance about how quirky it is. Considering how herky-jerky the Fiery Furnaces’ aesthetic was and that Last Summer retained some of that idiosyncratic tone, it’s particularly impressive how well the tracks on Personal Record flow, as Friedberger lets her compositions flourish by building them in ways that make sense and keeping their structures relatively neat and simple.
Indeed, the big take-away from Personal Record is how Friedberger seems more comfortable in her own skin as a songwriter now, even if that’s conveyed more in the smoother, natural sound of the music and less in the conventional sense of getting personal by baring your soul lyrically. Friedberger could always carry a catchy, relatively straight-up rock tune, as the gems on the Fiery Furnaces’ EP collection proved, and that knack really comes through on Personal Record‘s most obviously appealing tracks, like the jaunty, jangly single “Stare at the Sun” and “When I Knew”, boogie-ing indie numbers that highlight her intuitive songwriting chops. And everything feels complete and copacetic on the high-spirited romper “She’s a Mirror”, especially when it moves into a warm horn section that punctuates the song’s good vibes. More unexpectedly, Friedberger shows off some impulse control by channeling her creative energies into deftly crafted charmers, as with the bossanova shaded “Echo or Encore” and the gentle chamber-pop piece “I Am the Past”, which blends in some woodwinds and light orchestration in a nice, graceful way.
In turn, the fussiest idiosyncrasies that sometimes distracted from the Fiery Furnaces’ real ingenuity don’t get in the way of what Friedberger is accomplishing here, giving you a better opportunity to simply focus on her clever turns of phrase and detail-rich narratives. Instead of barreling past the guitar leads and rhythmic breaks, as has been a trademark of hers, Friedberger’s vocal phrasings stay within the parameters set by the music, getting you to notice and appreciate her droll character sketches and wry scenarios all the better. Set to a jammy, lullaby-like waltz à la solo Stephen Malkmus, the starving-artist mini-drama “Other Boys” finds Friedberger at her wisest and most sympathetic, as she offers consolation in the chorus, “There are other boys, too / But don’t let it worry you.” Likewise, “What I Knew” is a well-told coming-of-age tale, its vignettes on the tentative first blush of young infatuation made all the more vivid with details like shy glances at the “top of her white socks” and bonding over “weird music”.
Even if Friedberger’s idea of getting personal doesn’t exactly mean putting her heart totally out on her sleeve, there’s more emotional intelligence on ready display here than past performance would’ve suggested, whether the feelings are first-person or second-hand. On the placid, mid-tempo “I’ll Never Be Happy Again”, Friedberger conveys the bittersweetness of well-meaning love grown old, yet without making it appear as forlorn as the title suggests, observing tenderly that “Love is an exquisite kind of pain / And, oh, since I saw you I’ll never be happy again.” And while leadoff track “I Don’t Want to Bother You” threatens to veer off the rails into Fiery Furnaces absurdity, Friedberger is able to rein it in to express how manic being on the short end of a one-sided relationship can be, with perceptive lines like, “I’ll see you when I see you, sure / But it’s hard not to want just a little bit more.”
But it’s the aptly titled “My Own World” that finds Friedberger now settled enough in her own musical identity that she can let her guard down: So even as she’s literally trying to get away from a space invading friend, telling her, “So what do you want to interrupt me for, girl? / Leave me in my own world,” Friedberger is actually letting the listener in on who she is as she reveals all the quotidian ephemera that she wants to keep private, from watching TV to checking scores and expiration dates to cutting out coupons. Here, the eccentricities that defined Friedberger with the Fiery Furnaces don’t seem forced or over the top, but rather expose a relatably ordinary and natural side of her personality. Indeed, “My Own World” might as well be a microcosm of what Personal Record is as a whole as the best example of why the album works as well as it does, just quirky enough to stay true to Eleanor Friedberger’s one-of-a-kind perspective as an artist, while bringing you into her very own world more than ever before.