Sometimes a new album has critics so dazzled that we’re forced to recommend it before we’re positive we even like it. The Fiery Furnaces’Blueberry Boat is that kind of work. A set of long song-stories, musically indebted to the most overreaching moments on 1960s concept albums, Blueberry Boat veers off in a new direction every few passages. The effect is something like a post-punk, postgraduate music hall routine or—to see the boat metaphor through—a trip on the Flying Dutchman. Eleanor Friedberger mostly sings, her brother Matthew Friedberger mostly plays, and you’ll mostly boggle. (Click here to listen to a clip from the anything but straightforward “Straight Street,” plus here for additional commentary for obsessives.) For the first time in history, a rock album may require a “companion” volume à la Gravity’s Rainbow.
And with Blueberry Boat now atop the college radio charts, those exegeses are being written. Go here for a Web translation of the section of the 10-minute “Quay Cur” that is in Inuit and that apparently derives from Richard Hukluyt’s Voyages in Search of the Northwest Passage (as in this snippet). Go here for an extended musicological analysis of the song, from a Web site that has promised to engage each track in equally full detail. Enjoy the author’s thematic analysis of the album: “Basically, I think there are three ‘settings’ on this album: East Asian seaports, Western Europe and certain parts of the Mediterranean (contemporary for Eleanor, ancient for Matthew) and the American suburbs (slightly past-tense for Eleanor, present-day for Matthew).”
How in the world, you might wonder, could anything palatable come of a hipster-art-rock-Ulysses jamboree? The Fiery Furnaces themselves have said that they want to embody “failure and incapacity.” Actually, they’ve said much more, but maybe they were kidding. Either contemporary rockers should now feature in Whitney Biennials, or the Furnaces’ goal is to be so impossibly over the top that there is no way they can’t look silly.
Blueberry Boat is a tribute to that moment when early ‘60s rock became late ‘60s rock: conceptual, difficult, and as inclined to draw on Stockhausen as it previously had Chuck Berry. For traditional punks, art rock was a blasphemy. For collegiate punks like Sonic Youth, it was fine so long as it was difficult and truly avant-garde—minimalism with guitars. But the Friedbergers have a different take. As they see it, what redeems concept albums, rock operas, and the whole sodden lot is that when they fail, they don’t fail quietly. And what’s not punk about that?
After all, rock is a genre for bemused, benighted beginners. Its thrill lay in discovering a new sound, then playing it badly but with so much energy that it didn’t matter. Fifty years later, it might seem nothing is left to discover. But there is: namely, the feeling of being buried beneath that pile of records and trying to play your way out. The goal isn’t the modernist (or jazz) idea of understanding the tradition and then making it new. It’s finding something cool you like and bashing the hell out of it before you’re even sure what it means.
Bashing is what sold me on Blueberry Boat before I had actually heard the album. The Furnaces played in Seattle, unceasingly folding portions of 20 cuts into a 35-minute set drawn almost equally from Blueberry Boat and their debut, 2003’s Gallowsbird’s Bark. Studying a set list obtained from the band after the fact, I note three excerpts of “Quay Cur” and two from Gallowsbird’s’s “Leaky Tunnel.” But at the time, it was all a perfect swirl. They evoked mods in Swinging London (think the Yardbirds in Blow-Up), jittery post-punks on their Rough Trade label back in the 1970s (think the Blue Orchids), and every post-alternative garage band today more concerned with powering ahead than resolving issues of history or commercialism. For an approximation, listen to the mojo in Eleanor’s voice on “My Dog Was Lost and Now He’s Found“ or the harmonies that launch “Chris Michaels.”
The latter is as close to a Who rip as the Fiery Furnaces get. They adore that group, who started out smashing guitars and ended up writing song-suites like Tommy, figuring both were equally good ways to piss off the genteel sort. What the Friedbergers distill from concept-album overkill is that amateur attempts at extreme pretension are also, if you think about it, another fine form of do-it-yourself rawness. This is an old story. (Click here for details.) There’s a reason Dylan went thuddingly electric and started rewriting Rimbaud at about the same time. Folk, art, and pop styles have long become impossibly intertwined. Embracing that confusion turns out to be an essential hook of being a music freak.
Still, beyond pastiches, the Fiery Furnaces in 2004 don’t sound very much at all like their heroes the Who in 1967. They’re strategic about when to rock out and almost never sound “symphonic” as they orchestrate deftly between guitar, keyboard, and computer soundscapes. Eleanor, not Matthew, is the dominant voice; sex functions as a source of dread, not a form of strutting power. Their conceits are an order more erudite than, say, The Who Sell Out: like loading an album that epitomizes 21st-century globalization with references to a premodern world where knowledge of afar literally arrived off of boats. But finally the dominant tone is whimsical: Let’s see what we can get away with next!
With experience, Eleanor and Matthew are likely to discover that you can’t help getting more versed in what you at first were just winging. Just look at Sonic Youth, who once wrote a manifesto called “Confusion Is Sex” and are now in their middle age. This year’s Sonic Nurse is another fine album (compare “Pattern Recognition,” a distillation of a William Gibson cyberpunk novel, with “Straight Street”), but it’s been a hard sell to get anyone all that interested. As an audience, we’re pretty sure that we understand where Sonic Youth are coming from now and that they do, too. Contemporaneity can’t really be professionalized.
Still, everyone has to get in the game somehow, and in rock the best way is to mercilessly front like you know more than you do, forcing everyone else to figure out if that’s true or not. And this is the only album I’ve heard this year that can out-rock-critic anybody. I don’t know how much there is to the Fiery Furnaces as yet, but I sure do love them.