Smile Politely

Album review: The Fiery Furnaces — I’m Going Away

There are two things you should know before continuing on with this review. The first is that, based on their catalog of music, I don’t completely “get” the Fiery Furnaces. Having come off a recent review where I lauded the Low Anthem for being both creative and accessible, and railed slightly on bands whose quirkiness sometimes outweighs their worth, I feel it necessary to mention that I find the Fiery Furnaces to be one of those bands. Though I consider Gallowsbird’s Bark to be a great under-recognized album, the Fiery Furnaces catalog has been sporatic and unpredictable, and as such it’s been hit-or-miss, with the “miss” sections not being really worth the trouble.

Relatedly, the second thing you should know is that the Fiery Furnaces are completely sporatic and unpredictable, and as such, the Fiery Furnaces can be completely awesome.

Let me explain.

First, I’m Going Away is clearly a Fiery Furnaces record, so when I use words like “accessible” or “user-friendly,” it’s all distinctly relative. Where the siblings Friedberger have consistently managed to — like an avant-garde jazz troupe — evade musical common sense, they do so here with a greater sense of calm. For example, the tempo changes and sudden raucous guitar solo on the otherwise charming “Going to Dallas” feel more schizophrenic and out-of-place here, whereas on many of the band’s other efforts such outbursts are commonplace and confusing, or at best disorienting. It’s in that element of (relative) normalcy that I like this record and not some of the band’s other forays into wackiness: I’m Going Away is charming all the way through. The lyrics and delivery make you feel for Eleanor as she sings the songs, whereas the emotional connections in other efforts are much more difficult to make. Though many of the songs don’t exactly tell stories for us to latch onto, the sentiments paint momentary glimpses of of human emotions as they apply to relationships and love: tragedy, desperation, happiness, hate, gain, loss, and general dumbfoundedness (the latter with both positive and negative connotations). On “Charmaine Champagne,” Eleanor repeatedly chants, “She’s gonna get me fucked up and leave me,” and she delivers these and other worries as a valid, if not hyperbolic, matter-of-fact.

In other words, on I’m Going Away, the Fiery Furnaces seem to make a concerted effort to be concise and accessible, within both reason and character, instead of being deliberately difficult.

To further explain the record’s charm, I’m Going Away finds the Fiery Furnaces delving further into a certain brand of ‘70s pop, recalling the tap-and-sway of Harry Nilsson and solo material from George Harrison and Paul McCartney (especially his first two solo albums), all of whom practiced strange and unpredictable pop mastery. The Fiery Furnaces refuse to give themselves over completely, though Matt Friederberger can’t seem to help launching into those fuzzy Tom Verlaine guitar moments, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, and periodic forays into the aforementioned tempo changes or jarring sudden moments of sheer noise find the band true-to-form. Paradoxically enough, I’m Going Away feels like one of the band’s most carefully crafted and most musically unstable sets; the result leaving us, as listerners, afloat on a strange musical sea whose waves don’t seem contingent upon something as sensical as the wind but rather on some other whimsical force.

In short, I’m Going Away is a record that stands on sturdy legs, a pleasant surprise from a band whose unpredictability has proven able to hurt them. There’s something very alluring about the Fiery Furnaces, but they’re not always able to make that completely accessible to listeners, and despite the fact that I haven’t ever loved a record of theirs the same way I love Gallowsbird’s Bark, listening to I’m Going Away makes me feel like it has the power to reel in new fans.

Lastly, though it’s unlikely that the band or its label marketed I’m Going Away with this in mind, the record passes the party test at just the right time of year: So far, despite my reticence about the band overall, I’m Going Away is my favorite summer record — which says a lot considering my allegiance to Wilco — and I heartily recommend it with a cold beer, a shady backyard (or porch), and some of your best friends.

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