The Fiery Furnaces are alienating motherfuckers. Just look to “Clear Signal from Cairo” on Widow City, the group’s sixth full-length release, for proof. With its ear-blasting guitar drives, the track whirlwinds into six minutes of musical movements, which includes piano hysterics, dancing electronics and some bullet-train pacing. Eleanor Friedberger’s witty wordplay takes a backseat to languid lyrics (“It’s a clear signal from Cairo / Calling me back to your arms / Calling me back to your arms”) that relentlessly skip like a broken record. It’s terrifying for new listeners and an eerie change for the ones in love with the group’s heralded, genre-changing methods.
But maybe that’s the problem with Widow City – there comes a time when this peppy, scatter-brained mindset the group has ridden through the past five years begins to evaporate. Without a jolt of life, The Fiery Furnaces found themselves growing old, learning that once what made them ground-breakingingly original is now just old hat. And though Widow City isn’t exclusively either of these, it’s more of a mish-mash of the Furnaces standard, multi-layered production; a newly found hard-guitar edge from brother Matthew Friedberger; and the typical frank wordplay from sister Eleanor that works surprisingly well in segments, but lacks the chaotic coherency that could be their connection back to the days of the grandiose masterpiece Blueberry Boat.
Possibly the four most cohesive tracks (and some of the best) the band has ever released, the beginning of the album is a foil: a disguise for what lies beneath the surface. “The Philadelphia Grand Jury” jolts out of the gate with a percussive opening, a fluttering middle-section and Eleanor’s trademarked, wicked wordsmithery: “It’s all in their hands / It’s all in the hands of the Philadelphia grand jury now / More crooked sons-of-bitches, you can’t ever come across.”
The track cascades into Matthew’s meticulously arranged track “Duplexes,” featuring an airy and welcome faux-orchestral chorus that effortlessly melds into the couplet of the bouncy “Automatic Husband” and “Ex-Guru.” Though it’s a more abrasive track than those in the past, “Automatic Husband” rides a wave of bubbly electro-production before appropriately timed crashing guitar mash-ups. It’s chaotic, yet it tastefully bleeds into the following track “Ex-Guru,” which traces a closing thought from the previous song (“It was made by a special commission of Navajo basketball coaches and blonde ladies”) into the beginning of the next (“One of those blond ladies had a certain hold on me / I went to all her seminars by the airport in the Doubletree”). It dances along with Eleanor’s demeanor and Matthew’s apt for experimentation in the most welcome way possible.
But finding much of this welcome solidity through the rest of the album is damn near impossible since the rest feels like a mix-tape, a cross between experimentation with hard rock-outs and poppy electronics. “Uncle Charlie” plays out as another loud, disjointed guitar number. Mind-numbingly quick guitar licks cloud over Eleanor’s almost indecipherable lyrics. “Wicker Whatnots” traipses through dominating background guitar crashes, bongos and fleeting, UFO-style blips and blops. Even the album closers have a hard time defining what this band is doing. “Pricked in the Heart” places complete emphasis on Eleanor’s vocals splattered against a feathery flute arrangement and “Widow City” is a soothing, hyper-syncopated piano splash with a gentler guitar.
So is Widow City an attempt to throw darts at a board and see what sticks? A failed attempt at a harder edge? A band one record away from another Blueberry Boat or maybe a set-back like Rehearsing My Choir? It’s all too hard to tell, but either way, coherence seems to be its key to another gem, and sadly outside of a few slivers of light in the forest, there’s just not enough here to illuminate much of anything.