There’s a moment in Noah Baumbach’s new film Frances Ha where the movie’s frantic, mischievous star Greta Gerwig takes flight. She’s running down the street as David Bowie’s “Modern Love” plays on the soundtrack (in a homage to a similar scene in Leos Carax’s 1986 film Mauvais Sang) and as the song builds her dance moves grow more daring, her legs kicking out, her body leaving the ground as it might just ascend to the top of the Empire State Building and onto the stars. It doesn’t, and the movie soon returns to the grim realities of dead-end jobs, rent trouble and Adam Driver wearing a fedora, but we’ll always have that moment of awkward liberation. It’s the type of nervous energy that fills Eleanor Friedberger’s Personal Record.
That feeling of momentary transcendence is nothing new to Friedberger. Her work with her brother Matthew as the Fiery Furnaces was filled with little pockets of jittery exhilaration amidst all the carefully orchestrated cacophony, discursive interludes and lyrics about exotic locales. Whether she was singing about being trapped in a tropical ice-land, doing battle with pirates on a blueberry boat or complaining about juries in Philadelphia, Eleanor was always able to sneak moments of vulnerability into the band’s knotty, puzzle-like lyrics. With the Furnaces on hiatus and Matthew off penning essays about the evils of Vampire Weekend, Eleanor has emerged as a singer-songwriter capable of striking specificity and startling poignancy. Her first solo album, Last Summer, was patient and reflective, mixing the Furnaces geographical rambunctiousness with bits of finely observed autobiography. The cleverly titled Personal Record is yet another expansion of Friedberger’s style, aiming for a more streamlined and emotionally direct pop sound.
Make no mistake: this is an Eleanor Friedberger record. It’s still set in the same bustling universe: people in these songs ride roller skates; they read books to each other off their phones; they’re helplessly lost in their own heads. But there’s also a structural and thematic simplicity at work here that makes the occasional quirks easier to parse. Where in the past her words often came in cascades of proper nouns, she’s now tossing off koan-like bits of wisdom and advice. “There’s something to say that I want you to hear/It’s hard when you’re far/I forget when you’re near,” she sings on the non-confrontational opener “I Don’t Want To Bother You,” one of the many songs on the album exploring emotional and physical proximity. Time and space tangle like unhappy dance partners throughout the record, particularly on soft-rock wisp “I Am The Past” and Hunky Dory-ish “She’s A Mirror.” Even on the peppy, lovestruck single “Stare At The Sun” she cries out, “I’ve been in exile so long!”
Why was she in exile? Why for so long? Personal Record attempts to answer these difficult questions, chronicling nights of misguided friendship (“When I Knew”), bored domesticity (“Tomorrow Tomorrow”) and casual infidelity (“Other Boys”). These songs—the devastating “Other Boys” in particular—provide an anatomy of melancholy. The characters on these tracks are redeemed not by other people, but by music itself, whether they’re trading records, singing along to “Come On Eileen” or writing songs by themselves. Creativity is a healing force and Friedberger understands this. The music references in the lyrics here might lean towards the adventurous—Soft Machine and Sparks get shout-outs—but the actual music on the album sounds lifted from assorted ’70s pop rock larks. The acerbic irony of Randy Newman, the peevish grin of Harry Niilson, the graceful ease of Joni Mitchell—the elements are all here, in every painterly guitar solo, drew-drop piano part and joyful saxophone explosion.
Despite these retro touches, there’s something modern about the album’s ability to shrug off heartbreak, to grab victory from the jaws of defeat and then kick defeat in the jaw for being such a dick. Like Baumbach’s film or Marnie Stern’s similarly weary but optimistic Chronicles Of Marnia, this is a record about taking stock, assessing life choices and trying to find comfort in your own skin. “Frequent rejection/Occasional affection/It’s often offered in the wrong direction,” sings Friedberger on “I’ll Never Be Happy Again.” But moments later she notes: “Love is an exquisite kind of pain.” It’s a process.