Eleanor Friedberger’s “Other Boys” and the Quietly Devastating Love Song

The best love songs belie their sentimental affection with thinly veiled layers of desperation or obsession. Take Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man”, where the songwriter betrays his creepy devotion with promises like “I’ll examine every inch of you,” or Prince’s “If I Was Ur Girlfriend”, in which the Purple One channels his lovesick obsession into envy of the intimacy his girlfriend shares with her female friends.

The latest entry in this tradition is “Other Boys”, the fantastic climax of Eleanor Friedberger’s aptly titled Personal Record. (The Fiery Furnaces vocalist these days has a knack for moving penultimate tracks — 2011’s Last Summer had “Owl’s Head Park”, the singer’s richly woven tribute to the spacious Brooklyn park.) “Other Boys” may well be the world’s (or at least this decade’s) most quietly heartbreaking ode to polyamory, as Friedberger tackles a laundry list of “other girls” her partner is seeing — “the blond who’s in a band with her twin,” “the spider you kissed in her stairwell” — over a sly waltz, her voice growing increasingly desperate during the song’s chorus refrain: “There are other boys, too / But don’t let it worry you.”

Pitchfork‘s Lindsay Zoladz describes the song as being about “the kind of casual, open relationship that, secretly, only one of the parties wants to be casual and open,” since “someone who didn’t care about the competition wouldn’t make a list of her guy’s side chicks as poetic and mythologized as the Iliad’s Catalogue of Ships.” It’s a credit to Friedberger’s songwriting that she’s able to reveal the song’s nail-biting insecurities without dropping the facade — just when she starts to lose her cool altogether, letting the album’s unflinchingly self-directed themes erupt in drama, she seems unable to carry on, fading out on a tumultuous organ solo.

Alas, the longest song yet of Friedberger’s solo career is still too short — but an inspiring hint at where Friedberger could be headed next if she continues mining the newly confessional songcraft that brought her away from Fiery Furnaces in the first place.