Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer (Merge)
By Victoria Birch
It’s called Last Summer and it’s pop. Sparkly, perky, white toothed pop. Gleaming melodies with see-your-face-in-it indie shine. Forget the arty difficulties Eleanor Friedberger and her brother sometimes dabble in. Sans sibling she’s broadcasting in the lovely sun-beamed key of joyability.
It’s not that kind of pop. Not the lickety-split, clean as whistle stuff. There’s a healthy dose of ‘fuck-it’ and ‘that’ll do’. Dints and scratches have been overlooked, like the superficial damage to ‘My Mistakes’ where Friedberger hacks off the intro and launches head first into a song that careens like her pushbike (the one that’s going a bit too fast – fast enough for broken bones and bruised egos, fast enough for the kind of giddy thrill that stops fingers engaging with brakes).
(I know it’s a bit dull and literal, but I really wanted the video to actually show Eleanor on a bike, full-tilt down a very steep hill.)
It’s an album of haphazardness. The phrasing is ramshackle. Half-spoken passages have to be somewhere, like, yesterday. Songs clatter into the back of each other with the gleeful malevolence of fairground dodgems. There are clunky switches from happy sounds to sad sounds and a cosiness that infers analogue’s daggy appeal.
This quiet subversion niggles nicely. It reminds me of the thing Princess Stomper said, “Those who subvert the rules must understand them in the first place – why they’re there, how they work”. It’s surprising how surprising an AWOL introduction can be. How confronting it is that ‘Heaven’ seems to start at its mid-point, barely waiting for ‘Inn Of The Seventh Ray’ to finish before snipping at its heels with a saucy piano line and some neat hand clapping. These songs are a little wake-up call to your assumptions about how stuff works.
None of it is remotely off-putting. It jars but has the effect of keeping you engaged, aware. It’s exciting. That sounds silly when the songs themselves slip so easily into familiar territory. The whip-hipped funk of ‘Roosevelt Island’ is sexy fun. ‘Scenes From Bensonhurst’ is mournful in an undemanding, gentle kind of way. ‘Early Earthquake’ is delightfully low-key with its practice amp aesthetic – delightful mind, not revolutionary. What makes them thrilling is the way they’re crudely stuck together. Kept in place with a few bits of gaudy tape and some old chewing gum.
BTW ignore what I said earlier. The bit about ‘that’ll do’? It’s not right. I think the rough and tumble is a calculated move. Eleanor didn’t throw in the towel; she’s taken songs to the point of pleasing imperfection. Found some twinkly stones in the rough, buffed them a bit, kept the nicks and the chips. Left a few flecks of dirt here and there to show where they came from – unearthed from a personal narrative.
Oh don’t get all excited. This isn’t some salacious celebrity confessional. You can dig around if you want. Find out that ‘Last Summer’ is an account of Friedberger’s move to somewhere or other. Realise that the liner photo of her is a little lightening rod of truth connecting actual events with the line in ‘Owl’s Head Park’, “I only took one picture that day: it’s of me on a bicycle posing next to a white Lamborghini on Manhattan Avenue.”
Pick through the subway rides and the drug scoring and the street scenes if you must, the detail won’t give you much to latch onto. The small vignettes are her stories, not yours. The characters don’t offer broad resonance, they’re lifted from history and pitched into scenarios that only a tiny number of people will understand.
There is universality in the soft-edged memories though. The ones tempered by time. No longer all consuming but still able to pinch and burn, soothe and nurse.
Last Summer won’t shake cores, spark revolts, make anyone want to occupy anything, but it will stay with you. Like the memento you kept from the time you did the thing with that person. That dog-eared beer coaster doesn’t mean much to anyone else, but it’s such a comfort to keep in your pocket, close at all times.