The third track of Widow City is proof of just how
much mileage the Fiery Furnaces can squeeze out of a two-minute song.
Though clocking in at a mere 128 seconds, ‘Automatic Husband’ bombards
listeners with guitar fuzz, harps, toy piano jangle, various synth
lines, and a labyrinthine story involving a “commission of Navajo
basketball coaches and blonde ladies.” So it’s safe to say that for
fans of beat poetry, late-period Joyce and, of course, drugs, Widow City is about the best thing since Blueberry Boat, the Furnaces’ breakout 2004 album.
And even if this isn’t you, the brother-sister duo of Ellie and Matthew
Friedberger are louder, more melodic and arguably more accessible than
ever here—they take a Zeppelin-like turn on ‘Navy Nurse,’ while
‘Ex-Guru’ is as danceable, a track as they’ve ever recorded. The
Furnaces sense of humor has always been pretty obscure, but even an
otherwise-turgid story about a horny Spanish duke on ‘Cabaret of the
Seven Devils’ is good for a guffaw or two. And it doesn’t hurt that it,
like most of the album, is catchy as hell, although the Furnaces still
like changing direction mid-song, and still use maddeningly complicated
song structures to mask a larger, almost literary coherency.
But it is coherency that is tough to pin down, and even a top-notch
outing like this one can play like an hour of impenetrable nonsense
poetry. Catchiness aside, the Furnaces’ is a strange, strange world of
champion dwarf marigolds, French canal hieroglyphics and avenged
cobbler whisky pies. There’s probably a professorship waiting for
whoever can divine any meaning out of this — which is to say that these
uniquely Friedbergian idiosyncrasies are still what make the Furnaces
brilliant or, conversely, near-impossible to deal with.
So while Widow City doesn’t have as many ill-advised experimental dalliances as 2006’s backward-talking Bitter Tea,
it is unlikely to sway the legions of Furnace-haters out there. But
haters have to respect the band’s inexhaustible creativity, however
enigmatic its results — there just aren’t many bands that could turn
“the evening in question was a moonless Monday” into such a rockin’