Sometimes she sits and thinks, and sometimes she just sits. So went Courtney Barnett’s song lyric-turned album title and critic’s darling of 2015. In that phrase Barnett seemed to harness the process of her songwriting, that of seeing and considering one’s unique perspective in order to relate it in song. This is the sort of thing an artist like Lucinda Williams has been doing for decades; making an observation shared feel like a shared observation.
Eleanor Friedberger has emerged as another such songwriter, beginning with 2011 solo debut Last Summer and continuing through third album New View. Here Friedberger is in full command of her well-honed ’60s/’70s rock sensibilities and one-of-a-kind vocal styling that continues to evolve with each album. There’s an inherent risk to mining familiar influences including “Van Morrison, Neil Young and George Harrison”, because a casual listen might convince experienced ears that they’ve heard it all before. Therefore New View is best appreciated with a deep and unhurried engagement, as the full album in full fidelity offers many distinctive pleasures.
Together with band Icewater, Friedberger has used throwback sounds and recording techniques to create an album with time in mind. The “drums, bass, Wurlitzer and 12-string acoustic guitar… recorded live to tape” aren’t so much employed to recapture the past or necessarily to pay tribute to it. More often than not, the function is an aesthetic filtering of the activities in the lyrics (and likely the activity of writing the lyrics). These are songs about the days of life in which you find yourself passing time listening to old records and trying to make sense of the cycles of life.
Much of the lyrical content of New View concerns an unnamed “you”. In the first couple of songs, the first-person perspective (conveyed by Friedberger’s voice, but not necessarily her experiences) plans to “write about you” and she “think[s] of you.” The rest of the album makes good on those phrases, as versions of “you” enter and exit the life of the character being sung. Whoever “you” is, the nature of Friedberger’s voice — honeyed, growing in depth and expressivity — corresponds nicely with the intimacies being narrated.
Another sort of interplay worth noting is that of the singer’s voice and the players of Icewater. Throughout the album, guitar lines weave around Friedberger’s vocals. Guitar solos and organ/keys solos embellish or solely communicate certain emotional notes, as in “Your Word” when the keys replace an unfinished phrase. On the Dylan-referencing “Never Is a Long Time”, drums sneak into the mix and disquiet the tranquil tone.
Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Friedberger’s flourishing solo career is that her work no longer requires the context of the Fiery Furnaces, a band she shares with brother Matthew. Having released nine albums between 2003 and 2009, the Fiery Furnaces were a dominant reference point for whatever departures each sibling took after that group went on hiatus in 2011. Yes, New View contains a couple of specific callbacks, such as the likeness of “Because I Asked You” to “My Egyptian Grammar” from Widow City. And “Sweetest Girl” alludes to Blueberry Boat in lyrical phrasing (compare “you sit and you stare” to “Turning Round”’s “you sleep in your car”) and drum fills like those from “Chris Michaels.” But overall New View can be appreciated entirely apart from the Fiery Furnaces’ discography and on its own terms. In fact, as a vocalist, Friedberger’s technique on New View is to enliven short words with extra syllables and long durations, which contrasts with the Fiery Furnaces’ frequent demand of fitting large numbers of words into small spaces.
The irony of having successfully established herself as a solo artist is that her three albums create a reverse speculation. As in, what would the Fiery Furnaces sound like now, if she were to return with the effects of these experiences? Contributing to this thought experiment is the fact that just last year Matthew Friedberger released Mr. Fried Burger, I Resume?, his strongest solo album in the near-decade since Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School. But as fun as it is to sit and think of future Fiery Furnaces, at present New View will more than do.