I spent the summer of 2004 living in Athens, Ohio, my one summer on campus during a four-year stint at Ohio University. Athens is an exceptionally sleepy place in the summer, a tiny rural college town 90 minutes southeast of Columbus. Ostensibly I was helping to run the weekly summer edition of our campus newspaper, but compared to the rigors of daily publishing that made The Post feel like a real job during the school year, that summer gig barely qualified as work. Thus, I spent an inordinate amount of time at home recording song demos into my laptop, watching Family Guy and Ken Jennings’ remarkable Jeopardy! streak with my roommates, and listening to Big Star on my neighbor’s roof. Even after I exhausted those possibilities, my life was still overflowing with unused hours. I’ve never again had as much free time as I had that summer, and I filled up that time with albums. I wasted hours trying to figure out whether A Ghost Is Born and Good News For People Who Love Bad News were Wilco and Modest Mouse’s respective undoings or their greatest achievements. A.C. Newman’s The Slow Wonder was on repeat for days as I marveled at one of the world’s great pop songwriters and tried to learn his tricks. There were frequent freak-folk dalliances with Sung Tongs and Sufjan, and I often partied on the bridge between “new rock revival” and “blog-rock” with the Walkmen, Franz Ferdinand, and the Futureheads. Arcade Fire would later come along that fall and instill the genre with a swinging-for-the-fences mentality, but even in the wake of The O.C. and all that, it was a quirky time for indie rock, and nobody was quirkier than the Fiery Furnaces.
When suburban Chicago siblings Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger released Gallowsbird’s Bark in 2003, I mentally filed them away as some sort of sub-White Stripes garage rock curiosity, which in retrospect was unfair — that album is one of the most unique rock ‘n’ roll releases of the century. Still, it has nothing on the incomparably bizarre and brilliant Blueberry Boat, the behemoth sophomore LP they released 10 years ago. Blueberry Boat is an overwhelming batch of music, a 76-minute disjointed cartoon-prog rabbit hole unlike any other. It’s one of those albums that pushes a CD to the limits of its capacity. Given that they released it only 10 months after their debut, I would have assumed Blueberry Boat was the result of many years’ worth of work, except that the Fiery Furnaces continued to release albums nearly this complicated and opaque for many years down the line. I don’t know if I could have ever wrapped my head around Blueberry Boat had it not arrived at a point in my life when I had nothing to do but soak up albums. As it happened, I took many rides on Blueberry Boat that summer, exploring its every niche and crevice in marathon listening sessions, trying and (mostly) failing to decipher the epic narratives attached to its mad-scientist musical concoctions. It was so weird and so good.
Short of a song-by-song dissection outlining the various movements and themes, nobody’s going to do justice to the elaborate, esoteric nature of this record. Most of the tracks clock in around five minutes, with several sprawling to 8, 9, even 10. Rarely do they get from start to finish in linear fashion; instead, most of the tracks are built from vaguely related movements. In contrast to Gallowsbird’s Bark, this was only garage rock in the sense that each song feels like a Rube Goldberg machine welded together in the Friedbergers’ garage. They take place in far-flung locales like the biblical road to Damascus (“Straight Street”) and a sinking ship on the high seas (“Blueberry Boat”). Most are populated by characters like domestic drama subject Chief Inspector Blancheflower, an office drone who wanted to be a mechanic, and Eleanor’s dog, who, in the gospel-blues sendup “My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found,” flees home after she mistreats it but ends up “see(ing) the light” at a local church service. There are moments of complete absurdity, like when the epic story-song “Chris Michaels” begins with the lyric, “Later at lunch with the taco lettuce crunch crunch.” Yet sometimes that absurdity is played for something strangely heartrending: In “Spaniolated,” a teen kidnapped from a Chicago TCBY ends up rowing a boat to Seville, earnestly lamenting, “The pain! The pain in Spain falls mainly on me.”
Eleanor handles most of the singing in her forcefully annunciated diction, with Matthew showing up as an alternate narrator from time to time. The music mostly plays like hallucinatory circus rock ‘n’ roll — spare, wobbly, spiced with whimsy — though most of the songs segue into demented techno-prog musical theater at some point too. Sound effects and wordplay abound. What in the most glorious fuck could “A looby, a lordant, a lagerhead, lozel/ A lungio lathback made me a proposal” possibly mean? And have you ever heard anything more winsomely word-nerdy? (See also: “You geeched that gazoon’s gow.”) Same goes for every bizarro sitar flourish, every agitated-toddler synth line, and the rampant bleeps and gurgles that creep in and out of the foreground. This overstuffed opus is a geek-music paradise to be explored, a rock opera told in short stories and adapted into an RPG. Plenty of people treated it as impenetrable garbage, rejecting its abrupt changes in the name of pop or declaring that there’s no real human experience to latch onto amidst all the idiosyncrasies. That’s a fair reaction, but those who gravitated toward Blueberry Boat saw in it the expansive possibilities of wild imagination unchained. It is creation for creation’s sake — and anyhow, there’s plenty humanity to be glimpsed in Blueberry Boat‘s cracked-mirror reflections.
One of the reasons we write these Anniversary pieces is to assess an album’s place in history, to offer context and position it in the flow of time. The Fiery Furnaces, though, were a scene unto themselves. They exist on their own timeline and probably in their own universe. Sure, they had some clear precursors, from Captain Beefheart to the Velvet Underground to the Who, but come on. Few bands have ever grabbed hold of their influences and carried so many threads into such an unwieldy tangle. After this they continued to kick out unmistakable music at an impossible clip, charting a career trajectory as odd and unpredictable as the album itself. They followed Blueberry Boat with two 2005 full-lengths: EP, a more streamlined pop album that suggested a long career as indie stars, then Rehearsing My Choir, an unlistenable tribute to their grandmother featuring grandma on lead vocals. That one instantly silenced their buzz and pretty much rendered them a cult project for the rest of their run, which comprised five more diverse, unique, utterly strange LPs over the next four years. Then they moved on to solo albums as dense and intricate as their Fiery Furnaces output. They are true originals, and Blueberry Boat remains their masterwork.
OK, your turn to reminisce. What’s your favorite song on Blueberry Boat? Which lyric or musical left-turn still shocks and awes you? Is there another Fiery Furnaces album you actually prefer? Hop on board and let’s enjoy this voyage together.