Blueberry Boat

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.

Comments (33)
  1. Thank you for the great article paying homage to one of my favourite bands!

    My girlfriend and I obsessed over The Fiery Furnaces for a long while, and this album is the epitome of what makes the Furnaces both unique and great. “Blueberry Boat” and “Chief Inspector Blancheflower” are my personal favs, especially Matthew’s dead-panned line “So I joined the police force” in the middle of Blancheflower.

  2. Brilliantly bonkers, sprawling album (though Gallowsbird’s Bark remains my favourite) – my favourite track is the title track.

    Worth noting as well that the good old NME gave this album 1/10 – ha!

    • It’s definitely not an album for everyone, but that’s part of its appeal, in my opinion. It’s not meant to be passively listened to; it is an intellectually engaging experience that frequently leaves you unbalanced as the songs progress in non-linear and dissonant directions. And out of that chaos, beauty emerges for those with patience.

  3. Since reading this, these lyrics have been stuck in my head:

    You can tell me any
    thing that you want ‘cept I started seeing Jenny.
    I started seeing Jenny.
    My Jenny?
    and he looked down at the floor.
    You know damn well she ain’t your Jenny no more.

  4. My favorite track will always be “Mason City”. From those unforgettable opening, that guitar solo 2 minutes in, the hand claps, the disjointed drumming that transitions from Eleanor’s story to Matt’s drum and piano verse, the whistling, “WAIT!”, the build and WTF is a knuckle duster? all concluding with guitar squall. Then it goes into “Chief Inspector Blancheflower” and this record is already a winner even though we’re only halfway to the end. One of my favorite centerpieces on any album.

    Favorite lyric, and probably the undeniable best lyric:

    When I said, “Go ahead, you can cut my throat. But you ain’t never getting the cargo of my blueberry boat.”

    After wading throw 7 minutes of a 9 minute song 3 songs in, how can you not be sucked into the rest of the album? Such a powerful line amplified by the drop in the music.

    Happy to see I’m not the only one that referred to listening to Blueberry Boat as “Taking a ride.”

    Oh yeah, and “Wolf Notes”

    What a way to end an album!

  5. I know it’s cool to hate on Rehearsing My Choir and it definitely did kill their buzz, but I really think people were far too harsh on it; it obviously doesn’t bring the musical pleasures that abounded in their previous releases (especially EP which preceded it immediately), but it does have more than a few lyrical gems and is weirdly poignant as an examination of family even if it’s sort of an excessively dense and tough listen. But yeah, the backlash they got from it was a bit much and the fact that it sort of still haunts them puzzles me.

  6. best record is EP. it’s short and catchy.

  7. To say I had an unhealthy obsession with this album is an understatement. Blueberry Boat completely changed my summer of 2004. I was grinding peanuts in the backroom of a health food store feeling totally listless and alone and I listened to this album pretty much nonstop. It became my constant companion and made me feel less crazy. “Birdie Brain” is one of the coolest songs ever, although I’d say Eleanor singing “Cata-ma-RAN…MAN, you’re my brother” is my favorite moment of the album.

  8. It’s an album I have to be in the right mood to enjoy, but when the time is right, no other album can scratch that particular itch. I have to admit I always find my attention does start to wander with the songs post-Spaniolated, but up to that point I love it. Hard to pick a favourite – My Dog Was Lost… is irresistable, and Chris Michaels bounds out the gate, but at a push maybe Chief Inspector Blancheflower for its brilliant narrative and one of my favourite codas of any song.

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  10. I think in terms of their heritage, the Fiery Furnaces–and BB in particular–seem to descend from Os Mutantes. Theor slapdash postmodern musical revue approach is very similar to the first two Mutantes albums.

    In terms of their zeitgeist, they were part of the indie auteur “movement” from the mid naughts. Along with artists like Stephin Merrit, Sufjan Stevens, Of Montreal, and the Decemberists, the FFs favored formalist indulgence over direct emoting, and thrived on the idea of being ambitious masterminds.

    At first, this stuff excited me, but I quickly grew exhausted. I haven’t listened to any Fiery Furnaces in years now. I’ll have to re-evaluate Blueberry Boat and see how its excess comes across now.

    • WOW!! That’s some insightful crap right there. I loved all of those bands about 10 yars ago but haven’t listened to any of them in years. That overreaching style of songwrting really reached critical mass with me quickly.

      Good call

      • I haven’t listened to much Fiery Furnaces (by that I mean I haven’t listened to any) but I’ve always been drawn to weirdness especially when its a mad scientist magnum opus album like this. So I’ll defnitely check out this album that I’ve always put on the back burner for years.
        That aside I have to stick up for Of Montreal in regards to the above comments. I started with the Gay Parade, which is such a weird album at first that I don’t truly believe can be realized until the right moment, but once I found my niche song (“A Collection Of Poems About Water”) I started to realize what a genius Kevin Barnes is. So what I’m really saying I guess is that Of Montreal (I can’t fully stick up for any of the other above mentioned) is so much more than “formalist indulgence” and make some damn good emotive music. They are a truly unique band that has their own way of making music but it is also a vehicle for one of the best songwriters in the last 20 years ( this is all in my humble opinion of course) and being a someone who has always been drawn to word-nerdy phrases and creativity I gotta stick up for my boy Barnes cause he’s inspired me more than most songwriters

        • Amen to that. Of Montreal are terrific and indeed, very emotive. I discovered them right around the time Sunlandic Twins came out and it dang near changed my life. When Hissing Fauna came out (some serious emotion in that one), I listened to that album for about a year straight.

    • That Os Mutantes comparison is spot-on. These guys extended the song lengths, but the basic idea is right there on the Mutantes’ debut.

  11. Shoulda’ gone to Miami, bro.

  12. “Mason City”. Its placement on BB is perfect. Perfect song at the perfect time.

  13. my fave album of the 2000′s

  14. Heheheh. “Watching Family Guy”.

    What strange times those were.

  15. The beginning of Quay Cur sounds like something that could have been on Age of Adz. Which is strange to think.

  16. I also had a lot of spare time in the summer ’04, and I spent it listening to A Ghost Is Born, Good News and Blueberry Boat as well. Nice summer.

    My favourite was (and is) Chris Michaels.

  17. This album is just amazing. To pick the best track from it is an almost impossible assignment. Although Quay Cur took a little longer to grow on me. However, if I had to choose, my favorite track would be Chris Michaels because it is always changing but everything seems to merge in its right place. But I like the rest of the tracks just as much.
    I can say that, musically speaking, Blueberry Boat is their best album, but my favorite would always be Bitter tea.
    This band changed most of the perception I had about music through all my life. I’m so happy I discovered it. Thanks a lot for this article!

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