I had no idea a new Fiery Furnaces album was coming out until last week when I was browsing the upcoming releases on Metacritic. "Woah, new Fiery Furnaces!!", I thought, getting increasingly excited as I sought out a Torrent (well, how else would I be reviewing this before it came out??). I hadn't read anything about I'm Going Away before I heard it, so this was a rare case of going into a new release by a band I love with no expectations of my own. And my gut reaction was, "what they hell are they thinking?!"
The last time the Fiery Furnaces released an album that anyone would consider "straightforward" and "stripped down", it was 2003's Gallowsbird's Bark. It nearly got them lumped in with the early 00's garage rock wave, though going back to that album recently it sounds way weirder and more complicated than I remember. In any case, I'm Going Away is the Fiery Furnace at their most straightforward and stripped down. The trademark keyboards have been benched in favor of pianos and electric organs and most of the breakneck tempo/song changes have given way to songs focusing on melody and easygoing 60s/70s pop/rock.
I'm Going Away will take a few listens to make sense if only because the band are working against their strengths here. Certainly they have made a lot of richly melodic and catchy music, but it was always surrounded by experimental song structures and sounds. Most of the songs on this album initially seem repetitive because listeners are so used to this band restlessly moving forward. You keep expecting some curveball or keyboard noise interlude that never comes. The other problem is that I'm Going Away initially sounds monochromatic and samey by limiting its palette to guitar, bass, drums, piano, and vocals. Compare this to the variety of Widow City and it's like night and day.
Yet the reason I came around to this album is that it shows the Furnaces are still pushing themselves and trying new things, which is to say, discovering that they're masters of songwriting. What's more, I'm Going Away has a live sound to it, like the whole band was in the same room playing this music, lending the album an easygoing vibe that's missing from the rest of their work. At times it almost feels like an Eleanor Friedberger solo album with a 60s soul pop vibe, like on 'Ray Bouvier', with Matt Friedberger providing backing vocals, or on the "how can it be true?" chorus of 'Cut The Cake.' The album actually reminds me a bit of Wilco's Sky Blue Sky in its classic rock/pop aesthetic, particularly the guitar solo at the end of 'Lost At Sea.'
Speaking of which, as if to prove that they're still the Fiery Furnaces, the band pepper the album with glimpses of their past eccentricities. They have some delirious fun with tempo shifting on 'Drive To Dallas', which threatens to fly off the rails more than once. Matt Friedberger's solo turns on guitar are usually in his freakout style, which creates some dissonance with the pleasant vibe of the songs, but hey, it works for me. And 'Cups And Punches' is a reprise of 'Charmaine Champagne' in a slightly different style, adding brilliant "shoo be do do way" backing vocals.
I'm having a problem thinking of a concise way to summarize and heartily recommend the album. As I started off hating it but have grown to love it; as it's the band's most straightforward/classic rock-pop sounding album; as it proves that they don't need all the keyboards and unpredictable sounds and song structures to make great music; as it's the band's most live sounding album yet and proves they have a gift for simple songwriting...well, I don't know what else to say. It's a tricky release that I find myself liking more and more as I keep listening to it.
I guess that just means it's another excellent Fiery Furnaces album.