If regarded as a continuation of last year’s Rehearsing My Choir, a deliberate alienation of the fanbase they acquired with 2004’s exceptional Blueberry Boat, The Fiery Furnaces’ Bitter Tea is a triumph, insufferable and smug as it is for the bulk of its bloated running time. Approached from most any other angle, Bitter Tea is two pretty nifty pop songs, “Teach Me Sweetheart” and “Benton Harbor Blues,” set adrift in a whole big mess of cloying, navel-gazing nonsense. Less a rebound from the indulgent for-friends-and-family-only nightmare of Rehearsing My Choir than a lateral side-step, Bitter Tea sounds like a desperate plea to be labeled as “clever.” Far be it from me to decide for you whether or not to take that bait:
“There’s a town I know called Nevers,
never wasn’t was what it weren’t
when it wasn’t once. Knew Nevers?
Nothing never I’ll ever learnt.”
That, the opening stanza of “Nevers,” was the point at which I found myself utterly, unequivocally, Brad-and-Jen over The Fiery Furnaces. There’s always something to be said for interpretive leeway, but there’s also something to be said for syntax that wouldn’t give James Joyce an embolism. If you’re being so willfully obtuse that only recipients of MacArthur fellowships could hope to make sense of your songs, then you’re condescending to your audience, which shows the same kind of contempt for that audience that, to pick the most egregious recent example, Ashlee Simpson showed with her laundry-list of increasingly implausible excuses and her lack of humility after she fubared her SNL gig. It’s a vile, patronizing position for an artist to take, and it makes it all but impossible to appreciate the things that artist does well.
There’s a definite stylistic overlap with Blueberry Boat and The Fiery Furnaces EP—arguably the best record from siblings Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger—in that individual songs boast unexpected mini-movements that explore every possible facet of a single melodic line, that an out of tune piano, a synth harpsichord, and a squelchy moog bass are the primary instruments Matthew plays, and that Eleanor’s detached, frigid vocal style wants for the comparative warmth of ice queens Aimee Mann or Allison Goldfrapp. But two critical elements from Blueberry Boat are missing on Bitter Tea: the overwhelming sense of joy that emerged from its reigned-in chaos and the sense that, however disjointed its form may have been, the ideas contained in any given song fragment had an actual payoff. Mike Barthel famously—at least on the microscale of fame that applies to blogs—ironed Blueberry Boat into a linear narrative, giving legs to the attractive notion that The Fiery Furnaces’ work is a solvable riddle without stripping the album of its even more attractive fecundity.
Bitter Tea, on the other hand, is but an empty bait-and-switch: the tracklisting is written as prose, suggesting that the album already has a single, coherent story to tell. It doesn’t, though the tender “Teach Me Sweetheart” and “Benton Harbor Blues” hold up well in isolation. The Friedbergers have alternately described the album as the “granddaughter” counterpart to Rehearsing My Choir‘s “grandmother” and as “Sissy Psychedelic Satansim.” How Eleanor’s chants of, “I’m in no mood to comb my hair/There’s a chill in the air/And it’s catching! Catching! Catching!” invoke the Prince of Darkness, I have no idea. But, again, I’ve yet to receive my years overdue letter from the MacArthur foundation. Another dead end is that every track contains anywhere from 15 seconds to well over a minute of vocals—Matthew’s, mostly, but not always and whatever—that are looped backward, “Work It”-like, for no other reason than to prove that, even sung backward, the songs’ melodies hold up. It’s a neat party trick, sure, but the novelty wears off fast.
And the thing is, the same digital editing software that would allow someone to flip those looped vocal segments to find out what they say can also remove the vocals from the album entirely, leaving Bitter Tea as an instrumental, which makes for an infinitely more compelling listen. Matthew’s compositions show a fearless, inventive perspective on pop song structures, making it all the more frustrating that the album ultimately amounts to so little. It’s that adventurousness—the willingness to chronicle all of their experiments, no matter how successful the outcomes—that keeps The Fiery Furnaces relevant. For better or worse, there’s no other band that sounds like The Fiery Furnaces. While that’s admirable and even important, the challenge for the duo, coming off a pair of albums as off-putting as Rehearsing My Choir and Bitter Tea, is to figure out a reason why someone should care, beyond a clinical academic remove.