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Eleanor Friedberger - Rebound Music Album Reviews

Eleanor Friedberger - Rebound Music Album Reviews
On her fourth solo album, Eleanor Friedberger embraces ’80s goth pop and explores a newly fragmented internal landscape as a post-election expat in Greece.

Eleanor Friedberger is making steady progress inward. Over the course of three strong solo albums, she has interrogated her emotions and experiences with a focus so sharp that her insistent self-examination has become an act of sociology more than narcissism. In Friedberger’s relentless investigations of her day-to-day existence, listeners can recognize themselves, their friends, and the particulars of their own lives.

Her terrific fourth album, Rebound, set in a post-2016 Greece, provides plenty more of the same. But there are times on the record when Friedberger’s writing turns elliptical and the narrative becomes more difficult than usual to piece together. The Illinois-born artist has been nothing if not consistent since she and her brother Matt stopped making music together as the Fiery Furnaces, and the shift on Rebound isn’t seismic—longtime fans will have no trouble cozying up to many of these songs. There are elements, however, that separate the album from its predecessors and suggest some tentative movement toward a new way of working. It’s as if Friedberger is cautiously extending a leg, searching for a foothold to help her swing to another, more daring, form of songwriting.

Though it’s not the best song of the bunch, opener “My Jesus Phase” may be the best example. As has been written about the novels of Rachel Cusk, it’s a “mosaic of fragments,” a picture formed from broken poetry, backed by rhythm guitar and simmering, ominous synths. The track begins with a plea for amnesia—“Let me forget the words/Let me forget the time”—as Friedberger loses the plot in an Athens hotel bar, figuratively and literally. She has a gift for narrative density: Reading the Iris Murdoch novel The Nice and the Good and struggling to follow the story becomes an analogy for the sudden wild spinning of our collective moral compass after the 2016 election.

Friedberger had always wanted to go to Greece, so after months of touring followed by that bleak November, she escaped to Athens and assembled a band. But she didn’t write many of the songs on Rebound until she visited a club of the same name, which had been described to her as “an ’80s goth disco where everyone does the chicken dance.” The sound she discovered there resembled a Mediterranean knockoff of Joy Division or the Cure, and she imbued the new record with that spooky, dancy vibe, lacing its gentle psychedelia with a dash of foreboding. Like famous artistic pilgrimages to Ionia from Cusk’s novel Outline to Joni Mitchell’s dalliance with the goat-dancing redneck Cary Raditz on Crete, Rebound has the bleached, hazy feel of a sun-damaged Polaroid with a blurred figure in the corner.

After “My Jesus Phase,” though, it takes awhile for Friedberger to return to her more outré exploration. Before that come some of the strongest songs on the record, in a more familiar, sharply drawn and narratively coherent, mode. The chorus of “The Letter” reverberates with regret: “The opposite of what he thought he thought/The opposite of what she wanted.” One of the danciest songs she’s ever recorded, “Everything” is a cathartic anthem of defiance with a subtle current of ennui running underneath.

Even on those songs, though, Friedberger radiates ambivalence, often through double entendre. “When the pain ended I won a prize,” she sings on “The Letter,” after recounting how she took some pills found by the side of the road and was soon lying prone on a wharf. What a lyric! It could be entirely literal, it could refer to some event that goes undescribed in the song, or it could simply be that the release from pain was the prize. The title and refrain of “Are We Good?” uses a similar trick, with the familiar check-in question sharing space with the larger question about the nature of humanity.

Friedberger explicitly acknowledges how difficult it is to determine whether you’re doing the right thing on “It’s Hard”—a song that, like “My Jesus Phase,” laments the impossibility of making life make sense. Set atop a creaky rhythm and shot through with seesaw synths, the track is set at Rebound, where a song within a song that recalls the Cure rings out. Friedberger tries to find its pulse: “Walk back and forth with my head held low,” she sings. “Arms swing in time to the tune that I don’t know. And it's hard.” The haunting closer, “Rule of Action,” finds Friedberger equally lost, calling herself “a writer on the edge” as she endures “days with no structure and nights of bad dreams.”

For so many people, the 2016 election activated a sense of uncertainty or inspired aimless wandering. There’s something closer to home happening to Friedberger on Rebound, though. On “Everything” she sings of a coveted romance, “a man in Greece, a girlfriend in Italy.” “Are We Good?” gives her an approximation of what that relationship might be like: “I proposed to a woman for a man last night.” But the experience is remote and dissatisfying. Friedberger isn’t exactly part of the action. While it continues her project of self-investigation, Rebound does not quite feature the Eleanor Friedberger we’ve come to know from her first three albums. It’s as though part of her has receded from view, as she tries to figure out—as we all do, all the time—what happens next.

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