Widow City is wordy, nerdy, and throws in everything but the hurdy-gurdy.
Prolificacy is both a vice that has afflicted certain songwriters (Prince, Neil Young) and a virtue that has served others well (Will Oldham, Jack White). It’s quite the artistic pickle: over-produce at the risk of compromising quality control, or stick to the marketing department’s preferred album-every-three-years model at the risk of jilting the muse, who gets the hump waiting around for you to report back to work and buggers off in search of a more faithful and industrious servant.
Certain Fiery Furnaces aficionados of our acquaintance have opined that the Brooklyn brother and sister act Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger have been just a little too productive for their own good lately (a half dozen albums over the last four years) and that the new record shows signs of the well running dry. If that’s true, then the back catalogue must be the stuff of Borgesian labyrinths. Widow City sounds more ambitious and all-encompassing than the entire musical product of any modestly proportioned European capital.
This time out, the Furnaces are working from the much maligned mid-‘70s template of the sprawling concept album. Here are mellotron drones, backward tape loops, audaciously showy drum fills, muscular power chordings, mini piano recitals, prog-hardcore calisthenics and hairpin tempo changes you’d need a pilot’s license to negotiate. The opening track ‘The Philadelphia Grand Jury’ alone has about five tunes crammed into seven minutes, and shorter songs such as the rather wonderful ‘Duplexes Of The Dead’, ‘Clear Signal From Cairo’ and ‘My Egyptian Grammar’ are no less intricate.
Fifteen minutes into this extravaganza and my review notes began to look like any noise-addicted teenager’s Christmas list circa 1974: Todd Rundgren, Tommy, King Crimson, and a dash of, say, Cornelius or latter day Lips for modernity’s sake. The whole thing is executed with such gung-ho self belief it’s undeniably impressive, if a little heavy on the cleverality – an album that the listener admires rather than loves. So,
Widow City is wordy, nerdy, and throws in everything but the hurdy-gurdy (although I could’ve missed that in the overdub swarms), but its numberless interlocking passages should provide no end of distraction ’til spring.