The Fiery Furnaces
nscrutable and immediate. In essence, this was the dichotomy that made the first three Fiery Furnaces releases so compelling. Sure, the lyrics were often maddeningly discursive or plain nonsensical (particularly on Blueberry Boat), the kind of shit you could spend ages puzzling over and never quite nail. But then the music would rise up and hit you over the head with a moment of the purest blistering rock or gorgeous streamlined pop, and suddenly you’d be dying to take that plunge the lyrics demanded. Because why not try and master a language so fantastically strange when it already has the power to catch you in the gut or kiss you on the cheek?
Somewhere along the way, however, the Furnaces misplaced the immediacy, and you’d be forgiven for starting to think they’d never relocate it (at least by me, as that was my fear too). The grandma-on-board gimmick of Rehearsing My Choir immediately marked it as a diversion, but that didn’t mean the gathering signs of an undynamic insufferableness were any less troubling. All of the worst prejudices of the Friedbergers being insular, self-pleased pinheads were then realized with the follow-up, Bitter Tea, a tortuously aimless record of only sporadic enjoyment that really did make the sibling tandem’s wildly dissociative world seem like something they should keep to themselves.
Largely left for dead by this fan, the Furnaces respond on Widow City with such remarkable vitality and arresting tunefulness that I’m left deeply ashamed for having pretty much given them a ten count. An astonishing act of rejuvenation and reclamation, the album may just be the group’s best to date, and solidly reestablishes Eleanor and Matthew as progenitors of brilliantly exciting, mind-scrambling pop.
And trust me, there’s been no sacrifice whatsoever of the band’s wildly serpentine lyricism. As per usual, the Friedbergers typically (and powerfully) root their far-flung, oft-impenetrable narratives in the jarringly common stuff of mundane suburban existence—duplexes, first dates, school administrators, Double Tree hotels, yellow pages—not to mention less-than-exotic locales like Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Newark. From there, however, things can go anywhere, and usually do. Sometimes you can pin down a song’s setting if not its full sense (a wedding date in "My Egyptian Grammar," a Spanish tavern in "Cabaret of the Seven Devils"), and maybe once in a while an entirely cogent dramatic situation emerges (the aging wife spurned for a new lover in "The Old Hag Is Sleeping"), but for the most part we have to contend with schizophrenic tales of only fragmentary coherence, like the surreptitious "Japanese Slippers" and siege-minded "Right By Conquest." In this climate, you just have to wait patiently for things to momentarily coalesce, but when you’re hit with the wistful resignation of a line like "you can’t make smoke, only steam" ("My Egyptian Grammar"), it makes poring through hieroglyphics feel wholly rewarding.
Of course, much of the sad grandeur of that moment derives from the swelling harps that lend a gentle poignancy to Eleanor’s declaration. It’s emblematic of the entire record, in which even the Friedbergers’ most obtuse verbiage is rendered joyously imitable by the group’s patented left-field melodies. That’s not to say the music ever really takes the straight path from points A to B either (the frazzled math-skronk of "Uncle Charlie" should be evidence enough of that), yet Widow City is undeniably well-stocked with the kinds of quick-hitting hooks and full-on Zep-funk freakouts that so woefully underpopulated the band’s last two releases. Again, it takes a truly fantastic melody to make singing along to lines like "she’s a nurse, she’s open-minded, she’s involved" or "you might not pick any berries / But you’ll come back feeling good" seem like the most natural thing in the world, but once you’re hooked such head-scratchers become infinitely more enjoyable to repeat than any perfectly logical pleasantries.
One other thing. Because he contributes practically all of the writing and instrumentation, Matthew tends to receive the lion’s share of credit for the group’s fractured genius. Fair enough, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Furnaces would be absolutely nowhere without Eleanor’s stunning vocal presence. To declaim so many densely scattered, obscurely allusive words while conveying neither snarky detachment nor ridiculous theater-student zeal is a testament to the female Friedberger’s remarkable self-possession as a frontwoman, a trait her older bro can’t claim. In this light, Matthew’s true greatest feat may be his sensitivity to crafting lyrics that fit his sister’s peculiarly mesmerizing performative sensibilities, as he claimed in a recent Village Voice feature.
Lucky for us, this time he remembered to wed them to actual tunes too.