Review: Eleanor Friedberger's New View

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THREE ALBUMS into her solo career, Eleanor Friedberger has finally left Fiery Furnaces behind. For some Blueberry Boat devotees, the simple, unadorned sounds of Friedberger’s latest release, New View, may be seen as a betrayal of her previous conceptual ambition. However, after eleven years of producing grandiose, densely complex music, Friedberger has earned the right to release as much modestly lovely pop as she pleases.

While New View may not recall the pie-in-the-sky aspirations of Friedberger’s earliest work, the album is musically lush from start to finish and abound with intricate storytelling. On its opening track, “He Didn’t Mention His Mother”, the album whirs to life with a like a record run in reverse, and Friedberger begins by telling us, “I feel just as crazy as I did last night.” Immediately, she introduces the song as an explicit narrative device, distancing herself from the song’s events and making clear that her musical composition is not of the documentary mode. “Today I am frozen, but tomorrow I’ll write about you,” she continues, articulating an emotional distance that characterizes much of the album. It is not only the experiences she narrates that are important, but also their composition and processing. As much as creating music requires experiential inspiration, writing music is necessary to understand the journey that inspired it.

As such, the experiences about which Friedberger writes, usually pertaining to relationships and romance, are purposefully obscured. “I can still see you sitting on the edge of the bed,” she sings, “looking at me like it was something.” While she allows the audience to observe an intimate domestic scene, she welcomes the viewer only before and after moments of intense emotion, but never in medias res. Entire events are reduced to their inception and conclusion: “I so wanted something to happen that day/and then what I wanted, it happened.” Friedberger has difficulty staying present in her own stories, constantly shifting between actor, narrator, and analyst, always quick to remind her audience that even when she manifests her desires, their comfort is fleeting for things “just don’t always happen that way to [her].”

Set to pleasant but mostly unobtrusive backing guitar, the music on New View allows Friedberger’s soft voice and meticulous poetry to take center stage, giving the tracks life well beyond their mere three or four minutes. At its best, New View is a testament to potential, disappointment, and the power of critical reflection to alter our understanding of our experiences. Standouts like “Never is a Long Time” focus on time’s transformative power: “Now it’s snowing in November/Hiding all of summer’s crimes/All the things I’ll never remember.” Friedberger cannot help but eulogize for her lost past, underscored by the chaotic outpouring of unsteady drumming that emerges after two-and-a-half minutes of steady, pleasantly understated fingerpicking.

While not all songs deal so explicitly with time’s muddling nature, nearly every worthwhile track traffics in the dreams and lost potential. “Does turquoise work, it never fails?” Friedberger asks once, exploring a stone traditionally associated with luck, love, and protection. At other times, such as on “Cathy with the Curly Hair”, she tells stories only in the conditional: “If you asked me, I wouldn’t care/If you’d met me, I’d be there.” While this lack of certainly can lend New View an odd blurry quality, and keep the listener from experiencing any true feelings of intimacy with Friedberger, it also separates New View from the popular mode of idiosyncratic confessional pop, fatalistic in its specificity. For Friedberger, experiences are constantly reshuffling themselves, and all she can do is tell us what might have been or what could come to pass, the past always as uncertain as the future.

Fittingly, New View closes with “A Long Walk”, which details the formation and destruction of an entire romance over the course of a day’s journey. Over five minutes, Friedberger treats us to butterflies, passionate embrace “in front of strangers,” and ultimately love’s tragic dissolution. Once again, over upbeat Americana, she reminds us that all states are fleeting: “We left my house together/but I wrote this song alone.” Fittingly, even with the corpse of her romance still warm, Friedberger only has one thought—writing a song that will help frame her experience. Sure, this deliberate distance can be alienating, but it also underscores the inherent subjectivity of all storytelling, even the stories we tell ourselves.

No, New View isn’t the crowning jewel in Friedberger’s catalogue, but it is a beautiful, unadorned meditation on life’s most delicate mysteries: potential, narrative, and the passage of time. As an art object, New View is as worthy of intellectual, analytical rigor as any of her flashier Fiery Furnaces releases; I imagine, however, a few people are liable to miss the bangs and booms. B PLUS