There is something about The Fiery Furnaces’ new album, “Widow City,” that makes you forget that you’re listening to an album with tracks; the words and psychedelic distortion transcend boundaries imposed on them. The album becomes one long epic — illogicality followed by illogicality, developing the highly conceptual vein of their previous albums. And that’s not a bad thing.
However, the poetic nature of their lyrics attests to the eccentricity of a band that tells the public that it has hired “a new Official Flight instructor” on the first page of its Web site. The madcap psychedelia employed throws one up and over the raw beats and dissonant sound effects, which come in the form of the mellow squawk of synthesizers and deadpan recital of stories with a Dada quality about them. Violence becomes a joke, and humor — irony in particular — is paramount to the album. Who can’t chuckle at “the emergency cigarette behind glass” and the calm service announcements in the middle of all this chaos?
Of course, as with any other psychedelic album, “Widow City” owes a great deal to post-1967 Beatles acid rock. However, it moves quickly away from derivative synthesiser noises (which have a touch, only a touch, of Coldplay about them) and the sound of backward-played records of “Duplexes of the Dead” toward a more jarring sense of the unreality of our era concocted, through genre splicing, in a Dos Passos-esque style.
The album takes some listening to, and it doesn’t have any qualms about that. Indeed, the clashy switching between different clips of music on the first track, “The Philadelphia Grand Jury,” affirms this before throwing us into an indictment of that same jury without any reasoning. It is disorienting and lulls listeners into a sense of security before jarring them out again. There is something vulgar about the album, even though there is no swearing. It leaves one naked and confused after a journey through a cacophony of synesthesia.
“Restorative Beer” is one of the songs which really locates “Widow City” on the East Coast with its slow, drawn out chords and relaxed drumming. It drifts at times into the realms of triphop but always manages to float with relative proximity to a central thread. It is also, although it is difficult to say, the best of a very good bunch of songs and works best as a stand-alone piece. However, when one has already been listening to the album for an hour, it’s hard to tell which way is up and which way is down.
As psychedelic rock, the album owes a great deal to The Grateful Dead, whose imagined places such as the “Mountains of the Moon” sound much like The Fiery Furnaces’ “Airport/ in the double tree” and other places which stand starkly opposed to our rational realities. As philosophers, The Fiery Furnaces are indebted to Surrealism; indeed the situations and places visited are those of the subconscious and thus are not rational. One could even go so far as to say that they are irrational. Much like Alfred Jarry’s “Poland of the imagination” in Ubu Roi, the real places mentioned in this album are only pastiches of the places themselves. On “Clear Signal from Cairo,” a sham Egyptian jingle that sounds more like something from a Gameboy game situates us in their imaginary Egypt. The Fiery Furnaces don’t want to project their world onto our own; they live in a parallel universe.
Sadly, “Widow City” will never go down in history as a great album. Only a contemporary audience will be able to listen to it without shuddering at the ruthlessly cut-and-pasted beats and sound bytes. Music has become too sterile with the advent of computers and, listened to in a couple of years, the album may be considered junk from the past. Soon, the dissonance of the album will be incomprehensible to a perfection-driven music market.