The Fiery Furnaces –– I’m Going Away (2009; Thrill Jockey)

Andrew Hall

The Fiery Furnaces: the New York-based duo of Matt and Eleanor Friedberger: has made a name for itself by being, more than anything else, increasingly weird and exhaustingly prolific. By the end of this decade, the band will have (since 2003) released six full-length albums, a double-live album, an EP long enough to be an album in any other band’s opinion and two solo albums to their name, as well as a threatened silent album (to possibly be released exclusively as sheet music later this year).

Until 2007, this was mostly a good thing. “Widow City,” released that year, was a strangely muted, by-numbers affair with few moments that developed their sprawling, labyrinthine pop. Instead of being polarizing, like their grandmother-narrated “Rehearsing My Choir” or “Blueberry Boat,” where Matt Friedberger’s story-songs sported violent shifts in style and structure often within seconds of each other, “Widow City” struggled uncomfortably between a straightforward pop album and something stranger, never taking a successful hold as either.

On “I’m Going Away,” the band reins in their eccentricities; these songs sport simpler arrangements, Eleanor’s lyrics are predominantly fairly straightforward, albeit detailed breakup narratives, and the moments of weirdness almost never swallow songs whole as they have many times in the past. In essence, it’s the Fiery Furnaces album that sounds the least like the Fiery Furnaces, and predominantly through repetition and often striking songwriting they pull it off.

Whereas the band’s most out-there records ran well over an hour and often veered close to rock opera territory, this one barely breaks the 45-minute mark and its songs are remarkably concise, with most ranging from three to four minutes and relying on more conventional pop structures, with clearly defined verse-chorus assembly and moments of abrasion often reduced to obligatory guitar solos. “The End is Near,” the album’s first single, is driven by a few piano parts and back-and-forth vocals between the Friedbergers as the verse’s insistent melody takes hold. “Even in the Rain” uses the same basic trick and its melody goes from pleasant to annoying to relentlessly catchy by the time the chorus repeats it for the umpteenth time.

Lyrically, the record is certainly dense and wordy, but rather than lengthy narratives about pirates, lost dogs that find religion, curses, or missionaries that use ghosts to translate from Japanese to English, these songs are much faster and more immediate. “Drive to Dallas” has verses about getting caught in speedtraps and being unable to see out of a rear view mirror, but the sentiment repeated so many times is “if I see you tomorrow I don’t know what I will do,” and that’s a whole lot easier to digest on a first listen. “Keep Me In The Dark” gives the chorus entirely to its title, rather than everything surrounding it. There’s still moments of more immediate craziness: the chorus of “Staring at the Steeple” is about two women preachers, one who “keeps time while the other keeps a pistol”: but rarely do they get to dominate the band’s songs like they would have earlier.

Strangely, “I’m Going Away” seems like a logical progression from the band’s first record, “Gallowsbird’s Bark,” which initially got them lumped in with other blues-rock revivalist duos like the Black Keys and the White Stripes. As a conclusion to half a decade of some of the most eccentric pop to ever find an accepting audience, it’s almost as baffling as the material that precedes it. Whatever it is, it’s unlikely that it’ll be a defining moment for the band: that is and likely will be the explosive “Blueberry Boat” and its psychotic all-medley live arrangement: but it’s a welcome progression for a band that had lost me and proof that they haven’t gone off the deep end entirely, though I’m not entirely certain. We’ll have to see if they make good on the threatened silent album before closing the book on that matter.