What to make of The Fiery Furnaces? A brilliant band, maybe, whose frequently demented surfeit of ideas has proved too overwhelming for all but their most assiduous listeners over the past few years.
That’s certainly how I feel. After living with and very much loving the Friedberger’s first two albums, subsequent ones have left me caught somewhere between admiration and a sense that I simply don’t have time to do the work with this music which would unlock its secrets. Listening to the Fiery Furnaces, to all those words and musical contortions, can be a physically and intellectually exhausting business, sometimes exhilaratingly so; I remember live shows circa “Blueberry Boat” where they would stitch together meticulously diced versions of their songs into a seamless 45-minute, ultra-saturated piece.
“I’m Going Away” makes things considerably easier, however. And for some of us, I figure this album – their eighth, amazingly – will maybe act as a path back into the Friedbergers’ world. It begins at customary high-velocity with the title track, a typically herky-jerky nursery rhyme, with Friedberger’s pinging riffs constantly threatening to pull the tune off its axis. This time, however, it stays more or less on course, driving on purposefully. The sound is skittish, but the undertow is, relatively at least, linear.
With the past few Fiery Furnaces albums, I’ve known there have been great catchy tunes buried deep within all the activity, but it’s always been hard work trying to relocate them. “I’m Going Away” makes things a lot easier, with some fine songs immediately identifiable: stately piano ballads like “The End Is Near”, plaintive ones like “Even In The Rain”. “Ray Bouvier” has a little something of Randy Newman to them, or perhaps – more appositely, given the still-palpable tricksiness – Van Dyke Parks. “Keep Me In The Dark” is a faintly blues-flecked, instantly memorable pop song, of all things.
There’s also a certain heady jazz feel to some of the tracks, a zigzagging bebop air to the likes of “Charmaine Champagne”. The outstanding “Staring At The Steeple” features a generally moody, noirish air, one of Matt Friedberger’s most incandescent, abstract guitar solos, some Monkish piano and a drum solo. It holds a steady pulse, though, perhaps thanks to the anchored bass of Jason Loewenstein from Sebadoh, who plays and produces with clarity and discretion throughout.
And there’s also, every now and again, a striking epiphany to be found amidst Eleanor Freidberger’s inventive torrent of words. In the great “Drive To Dallas”, she ends by singing “If I see you tomorrow I don’t know what I’ll do,” again and again. At first she handles the line with a certain detached insouciance, but as she repeats it again and again, faster and faster, it accumulates more and more emotional heft and intensity.
It’s a lovely moment on an album which, thankfully, encourages repeated plays rather than sternly implying that they might be useful. Very clever.