I am not sure what happened to Eleanor Friedberger last summer exactly, but it seems to have inspired an album full of nostalgic songs about getting lost and failed romance.
Friedberger’s considerable talent is in her observational and uniquely specific, semi-stream-of-conscious songwriting. Memories are like that though, right? You don’t just remember the car crash last year, you remember that “the ambulance was called by a guy and his friend called Guru / they were visiting from California / they saved my life.” She is not necessarily going for universal philosophical ideas (one way for a listener to connect to a song), but going in the opposite direction – zeroing in on whatever details are still there in her mind. This sort of specificity makes the songs feel more immediate, even more real. I’ve never been in a car crash, but hearing her sing of one (on “My Mistakes), I feel connected because of the detail, and sense the wonder it caused.
Similarly, “Inn Of The Seventh Ray” seems to specifically recall getting lost in Los Angeles on a date. Without explicitly bringing it up, it ends up as a look at broken promises of a broken relationship (“you promised to take me to the Inn Of The Seventh Ray / if you only knew the way”). In only writing about the trip to the restaurant, she ends writing about so much more. Again, the specifics bring you in. Friedberger even regularly drops “that’s crazy!” or “I liked that” impressions throughout her lyrics to bring them even closer to the listener. We are right there with her.
Most of the songs here do seem to be looking at a broken relationship. She remembers movies watched (The Girl Who Played With Fire in “Scenes From Bensonhurst” and Footloose in “Inn”), making necklaces from tin cans, getting lost in New York (on both “Owl’s Head Park” and “Roosevelt Island”), getting lost in Los Angeles (“Inn”), I could go on, listing all the moments. All these scenes tie all the songs together.
Musically, the songs have a calmness, especially compared to the intensity of Friedberger’s main band, Fiery Furnaces. There are less riffs, and she utilize mood over Furnaces’ experimentation. Some of the tracks perfectly embody the nostalgia, subtly dropping in some saxophone or a little harmonica or keyboards in just the right way. The music does form a string of moods through its different sections, which certainly matches the string of scenes she sings about.
In many ways, Last Summer is a loose concept album – maybe not in a specific sense, but in looking at some specific events of a time and trying to figure them out. Whether or not they really happened, or are fiction, I do not know. Friedberger does not write from within the memories, but almost always in looking back on them, trying to make sense of what happened. Is this not exactly what people do with their memories? “I thought I’d learn from my mistakes,” Friedberger sings on “My Mistakes,” “Why keep time-traveling if it doesn’t get better the second time around?”