REVIEW: Eleanor Friedberger - "Personal Record"

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Eleanor Friedberger 
Personal Record
Label: Merge Records
Release Date: June 4th, 2013

Music journalists are treating Eleanor Friedberger as this fragile artist who is just now starting her stride as an important musician.  I’ve seen phrases like “Friedberger finds her voice,” “Friedberger comes into her own,” and other lines that treat one of the best artists of more than a decade like some fresh-faced, naïve musician turning it on for the first time.  If you want to know about Friedberger, study her growth as a frontwoman for the Fiery Furnaces.  Always a strong standout from the group's very first release, Friedberger emerged on the LP Widow City as a vocal powerhouse who in 2007 was “coming into her own” and “finding her confidence.”  With Personal Record, Friedberger isn't just "finding her way" - she's finding her way into the conversation regarding the best singer-songwriters we've got going.  It’s time we started treating her as such.

No matter what the medium, I always pay close attention to art that comes across as easy or effortless.  Often, when an artist can create something appealing through a seemingly casual approach, there's something more going on, maybe even something special.  Such is the case with Friedberger, who has crafted two straight solo albums that float from song to song with such ease that it’s somewhat hard to find her brilliance.  This will always be Friedberger's struggle.  How does such a unique talent craft accessible music while still innovating, while still staying true to who she is?

The answer is already there, in the layers of Personal Record.  While her debut album, Last Summer, was a nostalgic and focused look at her first decade in New York City and one visit to Los Angeles, Personal Record, like its triple entendre of a title, takes an all-angles approach, presenting the typical themes of relationships and music.  Every song and lyric can be perceived as an examination of a relationship and the effect of music on it, making for a universal theme that the listener can connect to personally.  At the same time, Friedberger is drawing her own connections.  In doing so, she keeps every moment open to interpretation.  Every moment poses the question: is this about my life and my relationships, or a specific moment from the artist's own life?  The answer is both, and in crafting such well-layered music, Friedberger has created a piece of art that can be fully owned and interpreted by the listener, all without ever having her fingerprints fade from it.

Like Last Summer, the backing music on Personal Record is laid back, bouncy, and nearly impossible not to enjoy.  I think it would be fair to say that neither Friedberger album's music is all that adventurous, but at the same time, the power of Friedberger's albums comes from the marriage between nice sounding, straightforward, "blank canvas" music and her own distinct lyrical brilliance.  The formula is simple: craft objectively nice-sounding melodies and let the listener melt into the album, then showcase her lyrical strong suits.  It’s because of this approach that casual listeners and critics alike seem to praise Friedberger, but never hand out the praise that’s truly deserved. 

The artist comparisons to Eleanor Friedberger typically highlight musicians who look like her rather than seeking similar artistic ambitions.  I never once thought about Friedberger as a Bob Dylan figure until spending a lot of time with Personal Record.  My favorite Dylan song is “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and I kept going back to that song with each play of Personal Record.  Friedberger and Dylan sound nothing alike, but if you look at what makes both artists important music talents, the similarities become clear.  On Personal Record, Friedberger does what Dylan has done throughout his career, offering up songs with a level of clever brilliance that might just be too deceptive for their own good.  They're songs that the listener can experience, enjoy, and then move on from with positive thoughts.  But for those who listen a little closer, truly allowing themselves to become part of the music, Dylan and Friedberger are no longer just obvious talents, but musicians making art on a different level.  Personal Record is just that - a personal record, but not simply one of Friedberger’s life or relationships.  Peel back the layers, and you have an artistic document that proves just how special Friedberger is and has always been to the world of music. 

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. It's tough to call Personal Record a masterpiece or one of the best of the year because it doesn't have any flash. Yet, these songs will outlast most of what is being made today.