The Fiery Furnaces love to frustrate, dangling bits of pleasing sound and then ripping them away. While many thought that the band’s penchant for alienation had hit its apex on Rehearsing My Choir, their latest outing Bitter Tea proves that their ability to disorient knows no ceiling, and shows that Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger are impishly content to tease the listener into a painful case of auditory blue balls.
I should apologize for making an irresponsible analogy between Bitter Tea and the disastrous Rehearsing My Choir. Bitter Tea is surely the Furnaces’ best work since EP, and shares many sonic and textural similarities with the excellent Blueberry Boat. However, that does not change the fact that Bitter Tea is easily the group’s most difficult and inaccessible record to date. Volatile bodies of sound, Bitter Tea’s compositions are more prone to metamorphoses and violent aberrations than the mythologies of Ovid. But it is the collective chemistry of his instrumentals and his sister’s vocals that bind the album together nicely and, at times, beautifully.
Unexpected and numerous movements within a single song are to be expected with the Furnaces, but a listen to the first four tracks of Bitter Tea is enough to induce vertigo. The constant shifting can be self-defeating, particularly on the first two tracks, but on third track “Black-Hearted Boy” the Furnaces unearth some mysterious and alarming rhythms. “Teach Me Sweetheart” is unapologetically disarming and heartbreaking, featuring some of the Furnaces’ sharpest and most affecting songwriting. “I’m Waiting to Know You,” with it’s cosmic slow dance rhythm, sounds like it was pulled from the best prom ever that never happened, and is every bit as gorgeous as “Teach Me Sweetheart.” The bounding club beat and handclaps of “Oh Sweet Woods” make it (gasp!) downright danceable, an outright heresy for the Furnaces, but one of Bitter Tea’s brightest moments. That the song retains its danceability against walls of buzzing feedback that populate its second half is truly miraculous. The Furnaces greatest weapon has always been Eleanor’s voice, and throughout the album Matthew plays to her strengths, not only manipulating it in production (at points he plays her singing in reverse, creating a bizarre, almost primordial language), but giving her enough non-sequiturs and consonantal wordplays to stretch her range.
Still, there is one giant flaw that weighs Bitter Tea down – it’s length. Clocking in at over 70 minutes, the album falls victim to the same bloated excess that doomed Blueberry Boat from becoming a masterpiece. The longer the album runs, the more that the Friedberger’s experiments seem like gimmicks. The Furnaces have clearly shown that they know how to craft an album. Now they need to learn when to pull back.
Then again, the Furnaces have never given a fuck about satisfying critical expectations, and their rote experimentation has made them into a blisteringly original band. Simply put, they sound like no one else. Bitter Tea is frustrating and endlessly enigmatic for sure, but it is precisely those qualities, and its fearless will to carve out its own identity, that makes it a work of art.