A cursory glance at Metacritic reveals that most of the Fiery Furnaces albums have almost exactly the same average score, with the highest placing contender being Gallowsbird's Bark. I bring this up because it's the least representative Furnaces album and also the most out-and-out rocking, so apparently what the majority of people like about the band is the times they play it more straightforward and break out the guitars. Which brings us to Widow City, a puzzlingly underrated album.
Widow City gives us the best of both worlds: it's got the usual Fiery Furnaces tricks up its sleeve--unconventional, suite-like songs, strange keyboard flourishes and sounds, fascinatingly wordy lyrics, etc.--but it also thoroughly brings back the rock that we've only seen bits and pieces of since the first two albums. 'Clear Signal From Cairo', in its winding six minute duration, moves from city leveling riffs to fugue-like repetitions of the melody to breath-taking full stop rest breaks with Eleanor. Much has been made of Widow City being the band's 70s album, but I don't know that I've heard anything from that decade that sounds quite like 'Navy Nurse', which starts with what could possibly be a huge Led Zeppelin guitar-and-drum riff before coasting into a willowy pop section with (almost) funky keyboards--and back again. Then there's 'The Old Hag Is Sleeping', where the new addition of the Chamberlin organ (a kind of Mellotron-ish instrument) comes to the full fore, with animal sounds used as instruments.
The thing that will immediately stick out about Widow City is how different it sounds from previous Furnaces releases, though you may not know exactly why it is yet. During the recording of the album, touring drummer Bob D'Amico joined the band in the studio, instead of the usual "Matt Friedberger plays everything and Eleanor sings almost everything" set up they had been going with. This results in something other reviewers have sometimes mentioned: a more "live" sounding album. If the Fiery Furnaces haven't sounded this heavy and rocking for a long time, it's largely because the drums are usually not synthesized like they often were in the past. On its own, this doesn't make the album better, but when you've also got Matt getting on the guitar more often than he has for awhile, it adds up to a rocking, lively album.
Lively is a good word for Widow City, because I don't remember having this much fun listening to a Fiery Furnaces album in a long time. On first listen it sounded like the strongest thing they'd done Blueberry Boat, and a few months of listening have borne this out. I attribute this both to the aforementioned rocking/liver sound and to the best and most memorable set of songs they've released since Blueberry Boat. 'Wicker Whatnots' is lucid fun, with a ferocious guitar/keyboard line, scattershot drums, and a jungle percussion break that slithers out of nowhere and back before you have time to smile. 'The Philadelphia Grand Jury', like 'Quay Cur' off of Blueberry Boat, is the first and longest track, a genuine classic Fiery Furnaces epic for voice, Chamberlin, guitar, drums, keyboards, bass, and whatever else they feel like throwing in. What initially seem like arbitrary and shiftless section changes reveal themselves, in that patented Fiery Furnaces way, to be bite sized delights that eventually form a larger chunk of deliciousness.
If I've not made it clear by now, Widow City is my favorite Fiery Furnaces album after Blueberry Boat. In time it may even surpass that ship in my heart. Ultimately it shouldn't matter, because they're both amazing, brilliant albums that deserve wider recognition.