Two years ago, when Eleanor Friedberger released her debut solo album, Last Summer, it felt like a rebellion against the music she’d become known for—or at least a reinvention. Friedberger, one half of the quirk-laden indie duo The Fiery Furnaces, had spent most of the 2000s churning out off-kilter, slithering arrangements and vivacious vocals that either left you bobbing your head or scratching it—or sometimes both. The band, which also featured her brother Matthew, had a knack for keeping listeners guessing, as songs would often switch direction midcourse and find a completely new avenue to explore, usually without any sort of map. The route taken was anything but straightforward.
But in 2011, Last Summer changed all that. Friedberger dispelled the notion that she was only part of an experimental art-rock project; she showed that she was a gifted stand-alone songwriter who could craft a solid hook with the best of them. Her breakthrough single, “My Mistakes,” gave listeners an immediate foot in the door from an artist whose previous work had been known for her challenging and less accessible meanderings.
That accessibility is in full force on her newest effort, Personal Record, which offers organic indie pop that keeps things light and loose. The album is about as stripped down and straightforward as you can get. While recording Personal Record, Friedberger was admittedly listening to a lot of Fleetwood Mac and Neil Young, and the album certainly carries the late-’60s/early-’70s vibe that its predecessor oozed—but with even more focus and confidence. Tracks like “When I Knew,” “Stare at the Sun,” and “She’s a Mirror” display the up-tempo franticness Friedberger has become so well known for, but she keeps the frenzy tamed just enough to welcome listeners in; meanwhile songs like “I’ll Never Be Happy Again” and “Echo or Encore” retreat into more a reserved, contemplative approach that showcases her versatility and vitality as a songwriter. But even with the back-and-forth between the tempered and the tamed, the album is remarkably consistent. It might be a coin toss how the next track will play out, but you know you’re flipping the same coin every time.
The gimmick here is that there is no gimmick. In a music scene that is increasingly populated by superfluous theatrics, decadent instrumentation, self-indulgent temperaments and fatuous methodologies, Personal Record is a breath of fresh air. It’s a light, breezy summer album with a surplus of hooks and pop-minded melodies. There is no mask or ego or charade for Friedberger to hide behind. Instead, she is content to lean on the strength of the songwriting and execution and production, content to let the songs speak for themselves. And the songs are strong enough to do just that.
The one thing hindering the album is that Friedberger isn’t able to re-create the splendor of a standout single, which she’s certainly made in the past. People hoping for something as immediately accessible and likeable as “My Mistakes” might not find it here. They will, however, find a gloriously poppy album that severs her own style from that of The Fiery Furnaces’ idiosyncrasies and ethos. If Last Summer shut the door on Friedberger’s former knack for erratic musicianship and off-the-cuff arrangements, Personal Record slides the bolt firmly in place.