pacemen 3 had an album called Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To. But “druggy” is a shapeshifting adjective. Does an artist’s condition—say, Syd Barrett under a blanket of Mandrax in 1970—make the music druggy? I’ve always found the perfect music for psychedelics to be MBV’s Loveless and Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day, but I don’t ever associate those artists with drug use and those records don’t resemble a drug trip to me at all—is music that complements drug use “druggy”?
Or there’s something like Bitter Tea, an album that mimics the shape of the psychedelic experience but one I’d never recommend or want to encounter while on psychedelics. If Blueberry Boat felt vivid and adventurous and Rehearsing My Choir was earthy avant-Prairie Home Companion mush, Bitter Tea feels scattered and single-minded, sometimes paranoid.
Like psychedelics—psyche: mind, deloun: make visible, reveal—Bitter Tea lifts the lines between the inside and the out. Appropriately, there’s a lot less rock and a lot more cooped-up studio hjinx, which is good; their rocks rolled clumsy and slow on BB and we’ve all heard The Who before but not everyone listens to Kurt Weill. Eleanor’s feverish pacing on “In My Little Thatched Hut” or the circular petulance of “I’m in No Mood” is why you avoid taking mushrooms alone and feel acutely weird around mirrors. Heavy introspection becomes pioneering on slippery slopes—dark, scary, and real.
But again, psychedelics are disorienting because everything in your mind seems both true and important regardless of a more stable reality. You might start weeping uncontrollably at a car with a dragging muffler or feel deeply comforted by a house because the windows look like eyes and an open door looks like a smile. On “Teach me Sweetheart,” Eleanor says “She gave orders to spill my blood—I thought.” Her trembling is real—it’s probably their most beautifully sentimental song—but she knows that its cause might be imagined.
Relatively trivial stuff takes on incredible meaning. I’ve called people to tell them how good wearing socks feels. The climax of Bitter Tea is Eleanor repeating the number of “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry”—“3 2 3…2 2 1…7 6 2 5...” as if it were ancient scripture. Though within five minutes she’s getting interrogated by two Mormons playing her “Billie Jean” and it sounds like it’s melting and yeah, it freaks her the fuck out. Because she’s tripping. So if the travelogues on Blueberry Boat were colorful and semi-believable, Eleanor’s present rambling about scuttling off to Jakarta comes off like she smoked a joint alone on a rainy night and drooled on an atlas. And “Benton Harbor Blues,” which sounds sweet and misty and straightforward and a little like Belle and Sebastian, is when you’re coming down and you call an old friend—or more hilariously, your parents—and you spout some incomprehensibly dewy story about how you feel when the leaves change color. It’s the album’s “Sunday Morning” or “Sunday Morning Coming Down” or “Easy” (“like Sunday morning”).
Bitter Tea is probably my favorite Fiery Furnaces album to date, but it isn’t without snags. It feels longer than Blueberry Boat even if you like it more, which again, I do. It’s also a shtick album, which I hesitated to say before; the backwards vocals/drum autopanning/no-stone-left-unturned-by-an-effects-pedal routine self-consciously signifies psychedelia in a way that some might find goofy. But you’d only find it goofy if you believe in the TRUE PSYCHEDELIC EXPERIENCE, man. Which, when you get down to it, is going to be you and your friends sitting in front of a fire talking for two hours about how incredible it is that you are drinking orange juice.