Review by Heather Phares
The Fiery Furnaces have so thoroughly trained their listeners to expect weirdness that it's almost weirder when they're (relatively) straightforward. Not that the band's music has ever been predictable, but from Blueberry Boat onward, it was likely that a Fiery Furnaces song would have hyper-literate lyrics and a sprawling melody embellished with -- and frequently interrupted by -- wild tangents and synth-driven flights of fancy. They took that fragmented sound to such a dazzling extreme on the collaged live album Remember that it looked hard to top, and they don't try to on I'm Going Away. Instead, Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger and company hone their pop instincts, put the focus on their flair for hooks and melodies, and turn in some of their most direct and tuneful songs since Gallowsbird's Bark. More than a few of I'm Going Away's tracks nod to the band's early days: the title track is an arty rave-up that turns a traditional song into anything but, much like the band did with "Single Again" back in the day; the jaunty "Charmaine Champagne," like most of Gallowsbird's best moments, allows Eleanor's engaging voice to lead the way over a fist-shaking, toe-tapping beat. The Furnaces also sound more organic than they have in some time, with the intimate production dominated by piano and Rhodes suggesting '70s sitcom music (they even name-checked Bob James' wry theme song for the classic TV series Taxi as inspiration in the album's press release). Those keyboards add some of that bittersweet feel to "The End Is Near," a world-weary ballad with a finality that the Friedbergers' dual vocals only soften a little, and "Lost at Sea," a piece of classic-sounding piano pop with a buoyant coda. While it's easy to read I'm Going Away's simpler, mellower sound as a reaction to the maximalist experiments of Blueberry Boat through Widow City, the Fiery Furnaces still find ways to keep listeners' ears on their figurative toes: "Drive to Dallas" is positively elastic, starting with a wistful, stretched-out melody that snaps into a flurry of activity, while "Even in the Rain" takes its almost ridiculously catchy melody on some detours with odd key changes and tempo shifts. The Fiery Furnaces do tiptoe onto the elaborate ground they've already covered on I'm Going Away's second half with "Staring at the Steeple"'s sinister rock and jazzy segues and "Keep Me in the Dark"'s globe-trotting intrigue, but their muscular playing keeps things more grounded than they've been in the past. Ironically enough, these songs feel more "live" than Remember did, especially on the "Charmaine Champagne" reprise "Cups & Punches" and rousing finale "Take Me Round Again," both of which add to the album's indie rock revue feel. I'm Going Away is a departure that fits in with the rest of the Fiery Furnaces' work, and it's only fitting that a band this creative can pull something like that off.
The Fiery Furnaces have a well-deserved reputation for being difficult and willfully perverse both in concert and on record, so it may be easy to forget that the band started off fairly simple. Gallowsbird's Bark, their first and (to my mind, finest) album, is a free-wheeling blues-rock romp ideally suited to drunken sing-alongs in rowdy bars, albeit the old-timey kind that primarily exist in the fanciful imaginations of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger. This sort of low-key, lowbrow tunefulness has always been a central component of the Friedbergers' aesthetic, even when they're off on proggy rock opera tangents, splicing their live shows into deliberately jarring sound collages, or roping their grandmother in to sing her own surreal, heavily fictionalized biography. After a half decade of booby-trapping many of their most charming melodies, the Furnaces have come full circle with I'm Going Away, a set of clean, straightforward tunes that, like those on Gallowbird's, would sound terrific playing on a pub jukebox.
Cultish fans may find themselves disappointed by how well-behaved the band sounds on I'm Going Away, but anyone who has been paying attention each step of the way would note this is not a sudden departure or artistic retreat-- it's part of a steady progression. Matthew Friedberger may have jettisoned his impulse to overstuff his compositions with unnecessary leads, but his melodic sensibility remains intact and boldened by streamlined arrangements emphasizing acoustic piano and the crisp, groovy percussion of drummer Robert D'Amico. The difference in this album isn't simply a matter of scaling back and dialing down eccentricities, but in the way the quartet embraces their rhythmic strengths, and subtly integrate elements from old school R&B in tracks like "The End Is Near", "Drive to Dallas", and "Keep Me in Dark" without resorting to pastiche or going against the grain of their established style. Compared to the weirder tracks on Widow City or Bitter Tea, these songs may sound relatively "normal," but there's no confusing this music with anyone else-- the tunes follow familiar Friedbergian patterns, and Eleanor's vocal cadences are as distinct and unmistakable as anyone in contemporary pop this side of Snoop Dogg and Lil' Wayne.
As on Gallowsbird's Bark, Eleanor Friedberger is the primary author of the lyrics on I'm Going Away, and the contrast with her brother's words on their four previous efforts is immediately noticeable. Though both siblings have a taste for packing their verses with tongue-twisters and obscure references, Eleanor's lyrics are far more emotionally direct, revealing, and confrontational. Whereas Matthew's songs lean heavily on skewed fictional narratives that are brilliantly crafted yet emotionally unengaging, the lyrics here are mostly autobiographical first-person accounts of romantic dissolution. Eleanor's words cut deep, but only to a point-- there is sorrow and regret, for sure, but there is also a slight aloofness, implying a character willing to speak her mind but not quite let her guard down.
In some cases, this comes off like a Dylan-esque pose, particularly on the Highway 61 Revisited-ish "Cut the Cake", but for the most part, the reserved approach to personal revelation is entirely appropriate. This isn't "confessional" music, at least not in the way that we often understand that mode of songwriting to be about venting pain and anxiety. This is more about reflection on the past, or even a reconfiguration of memory to make sense of the present tense. This is certainly the case for "Lost at Sea", a gorgeous ballad near the end of the sequence that finds Eleanor struggling to understand her reasons for ending a relationship. It's easily one of the Friedbergers' best compositions to date, but also one of the most atypical, as its majestic piano parts recall Elton John's work in the early 70s, and Eleanor's lyrics have an unadorned candor generally lacking in their older work. After six years of songs about everything from cell phone salesmen in the Middle East to being kidnapped by sinister Mormons, there is something refreshing in hearing her sing something as relatable and unpretentious as "Baby I'm... maybe I'm not me."
Not every song is so nakedly emotional. A solid third of I'm Going Away sticks to the band's thematic comfort zone, i.e., romanticizing seemingly lost cultural moments from the not-too-distant past. The record starts with the title track, a traditional number arranged by the duo to sound convincingly like one of their originals, and it bows out with "Take Me Round Again", a rollicking chorus in rounds that name checks popular songs from the early 20th century, including "When a Fellow's on the Level With a Girl That's on the Square", "The Merry Widow Waltz", and "See Saw Margery Daw". Like most of the duo's body of work, the latter practically demands annotation, and it certainly gains something from a bit of research. Ultimately, it's unnecessary-- the pleasures of "Take Me Round Again", like the rest of I'm Going Away, are immediate and unforced. The Fiery Furnaces will always be arty and precious, but they definitely know their way around a good tune. Have a drink and sing along.
— Matthew Perpetua, July 22, 2009