When I was first getting interested in music, a common method I used to find albums was looking at the highest scores Pitchfork has given out. A lot is said about how important a strong Pitchfork recommendation is for bands, and my experiences getting into indie music bore that out: anything over a 9.0 would instantly get my attention, and I certainly gave albums with a high Pitchfork score more leeway when listening to them, figuring that there must be something good about them to warrant that kind of acclaim.
One of the albums I found this way was Blueberry Boat by The Fiery Furnaces, which was given a 9.6 in 2004 by Chris Dahlen. It’s a 76-minute album with ridiculously long songs, tons of random noodling, and highly esoteric lyrics — when people make fun of hipstery over-intellectual indie music, they probably have something like Blueberry Boat in mind. In his review, Dahlen wrote enthusiastically about how how epic and complex the album was, and I get the sense that the “9.6” at the top is Dahlen’s own personal score for the album. Other music reviewers in 2004 disagreed vehemently, claiming the album was “unlistenable” or worse — it even got a 1/10 in the NME.
One of the most famous jokes on The Simpsons is in the “Cape Feare” episode, when the villainous Sideshow Bob steps on a rake so that the handle comes up and hits him in the face. Then he does it again… and again… and again, for 35 seconds, an eternity in the world of cartoon joke-telling. In the DVD commentary for the episode, showrunner Al Jean explained that the show’s running time was too short, so he decided to try something unusual to fill space. He’d been told that sometimes if a joke is funny, it stops being funny if it gets repeated, but then can become really funny if it continues getting dragged out past the point of reason. So he looped the Sideshow Bob animation and had him step on nine rakes in total instead of the initial single rake.
The result is that the joke became one of the meta breaking-the-fourth-wall jokes that The Simpsons was known for. Initially, the viewer laughs at the physical comedy of Sideshow Bob stepping on the rake. But after about the sixth rake, the joke changes: it becomes about the people who made the show and what they were presumably smoking when they decided to write Sideshow Bob stepping on all those rakes — the joke is about the craft of the joke itself. It ends up really capturing the audaciousness and weirdness that made The Simpsons such a great show at its peak. In the world of comedy television where there is pressure to deliver rapid-fire jokes to keep the audience’s attention, they decided to show a peripheral character stepping on rakes for 30 seconds, figuring their audience would get it.
This is all a round-about way of getting to my point, which is that Blueberry Boat is the Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes of indie albums. Its songs and the album itself are so long and overcooked that it has the same fourth-wall-breaking element for me, where I stop thinking about what the music itself is saying and start reflecting on how absurd it is that Matt and Eleanor Friedberger made a 9-minute song about blueberry pirates, or a 10-minute album opener that is like four songs that got randomly glued together. And the brazenness of the band becomes part of Blueberry Boat‘s appeal: while this kind of indulgence can be very annoying, the way the Fiery Furnaces escalate it and push it so far gives Blueberry Boat a unique, winning charm — not despite its excesses, but because of them.
Blueberry Boat sometimes gets called a concept album because of its operatic story-based songs, even though there seemingly isn’t much connecting the songs to each other. I view it through the Sideshow Bob lens: it’s an album that is about the album itself. It is constructed to make you aware of its own construction and to appreciate the amount of wonder and energy that is put into these bizarre stories. It’s about embracing creativity and imagination, accepting complexity and weirdness, and being yourself even if that might end up annoying people.
Blueberry Boat definitely did annoy people, which is why it’s this exceptionally rare, maybe even bygone thing in music: a truly divisive album, even among critics who (especially now, I feel) have very similar outlooks on what makes music good. Especially on social media, albums seem to instantly reach this suffocating consensus, but Blueberry Boat holds up as a legitimately love-it-or-hate-it album that defies easy categorization. And the fact that people hate it only makes me like it more. I’m not that interested in music that makes itself too easy to like — it’s much more fun to find the good in an album like Blueberry Boat that is so off-the-wall and inaccessible to the general public.
The days of albums like Blueberry Boat getting a 9.6 from Pitchfork are pretty much over, and I imagine it’s one of those old reviews that the site wishes they could wipe from existence. Personally, I find myself nostalgic for when music reviews read like strong individual opinions instead of bland consensus-forming or wishy-washy “this might appeal to you I guess” non-statements. Consensus is boring, and that’s something The Fiery Furnaces understood when they made Blueberry Boat. It’s an album that practically begs you to dislike it, which is why I like it so much.