I still remember the level of disappointment I experienced when I first heard Blueberry Boat. Fiery Furnaces debut, Gallowsbird’s Bark, is for my money, one of the best debut albums of the last two decades. A thrillingly shakey series of travelogue sketches recorded in a lo-fi manner, propelled by tumbling pianos, nicely rhythmic guitars and Eleanor Friedberger’s wonderful vocals, Gallowsbird’s Bark was an album I heard and instantly fell for its charms. “Oh yes” I said to myself “I’d like some more like this please”. It turns out that my level of anticipation for Fiery Furnaces’ second album was over optimistic, and when it was released I took it as a hard reminder that there are times when your expectations for an album are at such a high level that you’re just setting yourself up for a fall.
Blueberry Boat is a different beast to its predecessor, with the rolling pianos being pared back and smothering everything in squelchy synth sounds, Eleanor sharing vocals with her considerably less charismatic brother Matt, and the songwriting being stretched from merely idiosyncratic to the point of bloody annoying. Worst of all though is the fact that the economical and generally thrilling arrangements have been abandoned almost wholesale in favour of over-long, meandering and largely directionless epics. When I first heard Blueberry Boat, I felt that in one fell swoop The Fiery Furnaces have managed to abandon just about everything that I loved about them.
In retrospect, I was perhaps being unfair on Fiery Furances at the time. Blueberry Boat is a vast patch-work quilt of musical ideas and odd snippets of decent, if half-baked, songs. If you listen to it long enough there are brief moments of inspiration to cling to, such as the last two thirds of “Chief Inspector Blancheflower”, a number which would have hugely benefited from being split into two different songs, the Eleanor led section where she’s ‘Damp in Dumbarton Dip’ and the resulting murder investigation and then the Matt-led visit to Springfield on his motorcycle to visit his younger brother Michael and confront his sibling about the previously unknown affair with his ex-girlfriend. There are brief moments of greatness like this scattered throughout Blueberry Boat, but 15 years after I was so disappointed by it, it’s still not enough to hold the interest, as they are so widely spaced apart. Between all the compelling musical doodles and moments of sublime lyricism, there are still huge impenetrable slabs of disorientating and confusing material that seemingly serve no purpose other than to be disorientating and confusing. Frustratingly if Fiery Furnaces had just concentrated on the tiny sections that are listenable, written some decent tunes around them and not felt the need to fill up the whole hour and twenty minutes of CD, Blueberry Boat may very well have been a whole lot more listenable.
Sadly Fiery Furnaces would never truly return to the music style that I found so thrilling on their debut, but they would go on to release a sequence of arty albums that ran the alt-rock gamut. None were quite as impenetrable as Blueberry Boat.