People die of overdoses all the time. Cocaine, heroin, you name it. I had a friend who used to work as a toxicologist, and he once came across a case where a guy ate a crap load of peanut butter and died. He wasn’t allergic; he ate like seven jars of it or something and it totally overwhelmed his liver. Plain old harmless peanut butter. If you overdo anything, make no mistake: It will kill you. You could die of gummi bear poisoning. Think about that next time you rip open a bag of Haribo.
Siblings Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger have produced an album of plentiful beauty in Blueberry Boat. The follow-up to their promising debut, 2003’s Gallowsbird Bark, Blueberry Boat is an all-out assault on the listener, a spectacular barrage of ideas and arrangements and lyrical narratives that comprises one of the most ambitious albums of the year. But with a seventy-six-minute running time, the album’s more tedious moments are amplified as your weary brain attempts to fight through them to get to the good stuff. That becomes a chore, and listening to music shouldn’t be a chore.
When they decide where they want to go, the Friedbergers execute beautifully. Matthew’s production is complex and flawless, and Eleanor’s voice has a plain beauty, one that makes you believe that just listening to her talk would be enjoyable. On “Paw Paw Tree,” they hit upon a great sound, with thumping drums working with acoustic guitars to corral the flailing electrified solos. “Straight Street” sounds like an outtake from Magical Mystery Tour, with its romping pianos and rapid-fire vocals. The symphonic chorus adds to the show-tune vibe, a feel that pervades much of the album.
At the three-minute mark of “Chief Inspector Blancheflower,” the Furnaces channel more Paul McCartney for the most infectious slice of music on the record — but they also require that you listen to a song’s worth of totally irrelevant music to get to that point. “1917” ends with a beautiful lamentation, but it begins with the dead weight of studio wankery. Nearly two-thirds of the album is tied up in five songs that could have been focused into more cohesive units. By the end of the record, wading through every last intricate arrangement is nearly impossible; your brain is just trying to stay afloat.
The will to do anything and go anywhere is most definitely an asset in today’s flooded music scene. But Blueberry Boat sounds like the Furnaces suddenly froze up amidst their recording sessions and were afraid to cut anything out. There’s an especially poignant scene in the movie Wonderboys where writing student Katie Holmes tells professor Michael Douglas what she thinks of his latest book, the follow-up to his Pen Award-winning novel. “Even though your book is really beautiful,” she says, after mentioning that she fell asleep reading through its 2,600 pages, “it reads in places like you really didn’t make any choices. At all.” Blueberry Boat is ambitious and stunning, but the extraneous pieces diminish what could have been a masterpiece.