No Bolts From The Blueberry
Grasping at the meaning of the Fiery Furnaces'
Chock full of oblique narrative, layered vintage
synths, and more great rock silliness per square measure than anything
produced by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer: the Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry
Boat is, like Nabokov's Pale Fire, a major work of art
begging for interpretation. Mike
at Clap Clap Blog has already done most of the major lifting,
dissecting the music, lyrics, and context for each. His interpretation
on the music is spot-on, as is, for the most part, his analysis
of the lyrics and context. However, I disagree with his interpretation
on a few key points, thus this alternate take.
To both of our reads, Blueberry Boat is, like
Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, about people gaining knowledge
as they attempt (and usually fail) to sell or ship various goods
around the world. The narratives are somewhat hallucinatory, vacillating
between concrete details and sheer impressionism. Time is fluid
throughout the stories, and it's not clear whether some of the narrators
are simply making stories up or if some of the characters are unstuck
in time. However, they are tied together by the prevailing themes
of movement and growth.
Lyrically, the album is more fun than should
be legal, marrying unpredictable verse with inventive slang. The
album is sung by Eleanor and Matt Friedberger, the siblings who
front the Fiery Furnaces, each taking different roles during the
songs, shifting narrative perspective to a new character or new
The music is phenomenal throughout, each song
listing wildly through different frameworks like a storm-tossed
frigate. The Fiery Furnaces owe an unmistakable debt to early Who
rock operas such as "A Quick One (While He's Away)" and
"Rael." Unlike the wretchedly excessive rock operas of
the 70s, the chords stay in major keys, and the time remains 4/4
throughout. None of the music is about showboating and the Fiery
Furnaces never condescend to their subject, unlike the prog-rock
behemoths that preceded them. However, each song rewards listeners
with multiple melodies, countermelodies, hyperactive guitar, skronky
synth bleeps and farts, sudden shifts in tone, themes that comment
on the lyrics, and the delight of stripping songs down and rebuilding
them, sometimes in a single verse. The Fiery Furnaces don't want
to bore themselves, but they also don't want to lose cohesiveness.
They want to create music that is both fun and challenging, ephemeral
and carefully crafted, silly and intellectually stimulating. Every
song is a balancing act between those impulses.
This essay originally attempted to draw all of
the songs into a coherent narrative throughout. The assumption was
that, as with Pale Fire, there would be some hidden clue that brought
clarity to how all of the tracks work together. Unfortunately, no
such clue has emerged. The Fiery Furnaces have indicated that they
intended for the album to be a collection of stand-alone rock operas,
and that is apparently what it is.
Let's let that pass, though. Each song does
have a meaning that can be teased out, and the album does
have general themes that each song shares with the others. It makes
as much sense brought into an album-length narrative, even if the
Fiery Furnaces didn't intend for it to happen. By the end of this
essay, I'll propose three Grand Unified Blueberry Boat Theories
that we can overlay on these songs to provide an album-length narrative.
A quick point on interpretation: the lyrics are
printed in the CD booklet but sometimes appear to have misspellings
and grammatical mistakes. The subjects are well researched, so it's
safe to assume that a word that related to a reasonable possible
subject is meant to refer to that subject.
AND NOW, THE SONG-BY-SONG NARRATIVE:
"Quay Cur" establishes the 'shipping'
and 'historical' threads of the album, and the beginning of animal
references -- particularly to dogs - standing for people in these
narratives. This song takes place in the 18th century; the quay
cur, or dockhound (pronounced "key cur," although it visually
puns on the nonviolent Quakers), in question is a locket girl, the
primary character in this song. She is thinking about a protective
locket that a "killick" (since this is a type of anchor,
presumably this made-up slang describes the guy's physical appearance)
threw into the water by while she was whoring herself on the quays.
After lamenting the loss
of her locket, the quay cur launches into her tale: she and a few
other prostitutes snuck onto a quarantined whaling boat to sell
themselves to the captive audience. This turned out not to be such
a great idea, as the men were cash-poor, unable to earn money either
at sea or by land. While hidden behind barrels of blubber, waiting
for the all-clear sign to abandon ship, the prostitutes were trapped
by a sudden storm. They found themselves out to sea at the end of
the storm, believing that rats cut the sails loose and the anchor
chain rusted through. By the time that the weather clears, they
have been captured by Borneo pirates (probably working for a larger
operation) under the semi-legitimate claim that the whaling ship
was dead in the water. Clap Clap's Mike argues that the pirates
cut the ship loose in the first place, but it could also be bad
luck, possibly because of the lost locket.
Although Eleanor is the
primary vocalist for the first part of the song, the lines concerning
their capture are sung by Matt, implying that the perspective has
shifted away from the locket girl, probably to the shanghaied sailor
whose lines Matt sings later in the song. Matt goes on to describe
how the people from the ship are sold into slavery at Kolaba, in
India. Eleanor (again as the locket girl) takes back over the narrative
to sing about being shipped to Fort Dauphin in Madagascar, where
they witness the ancient pseudo-napalm called 'Greek fire' burning
on the sea. The locket girl hears a guard admit that he could be
bribed to let the castaways escape.
Matt's shanghaied sailor again takes over the
narrative, describing how he was press-ganged into service by a
person he despises -- a looby (i.e. landlubber), lordant (no idea),
lagerhead (a drunk or possibly a loggerhead, a moron), lozel (a
miscreant), and a lungio lathback (which seems to mean a long chair
or a lung-shaped chair, although I'm not sure why that's an insult)
- who had a press-gang warrant signed by the made-up Sir Edward
Eleanor returns to sing
from the perspective of a different sailor (possibly the same sailor
from later in the narrative) too sick to navigate well who gets
lost looking for Gilbert Sound near Greenland. He/she mentions that
their hull is full of pelts from seals and polar bears.
The shanghaied sailor
interrupts to sing his history again, and then the crew and prostitutes
find themselves lost in Greenland. Eleanor, as the locket girl again,
sings in pidgin Inuit about her attempt to sway the natives to protect
the group. As translated at Clap
half hour sandglass (time is passing)
seven saker round shot / ice for the moonshine / and chichsaneg
Canyglow (kiss me), canyglow, canyglow don't say nugo
tie tight my sugnacoon (coat )
in comes the tucktodo (fog)
Aba in aob aginyoh (fallen down in the sea, go fetch)
Look awennye (over there)
Get out my sawygmeg (knife)
Yliaout, yliaout (I mean no harm)
Weave us on shore
Unuiche quoysah (give it, give it to me)
Maconmeg (will you have)
And I gave a sasobneg (bracelet)
Canyglow, canyglow, canyglow don't say nugo
Tie tight my sugnacoon
In comes the tucktodo
Aba in aob aginyoh.
I think what's happening here (and I admit that
I'm extrapolating quite a bit) is that the castaways get drunk with
the Inuits, and the prostitutes come on to the Inuit men in an attempt
to get them to protect the party (or, at least, themselves). The
lost locket (they call it a bracelet, but there is the language
barrier to deal with here) is found in the ice (fallen down in the
sea, go fetch, look yonder), but when the castaways dig out their
knives to rescue the locket, the Inuits misinterpret their actions
as hostile and abandon them on shore. The Inuits demand the 'bracelet',
which the locket girl gives to them in hopes that the Inuits will
stay and protect the party, but instead, they leave with it and
possibly throw it back to sea.
In the final section of the song, the castaways
are on a death-boat, living on mussels and seaweed, abandoning the
sick to their deaths on isolated shores, and using shrouds for sails.
Despite attempting to clear his lungs with Rosa Solis, an herbal
mixture, the shanghaied sailor is near death. However, both he and
the locket girl are two of the five people who survive to land at
Newfoundland. The locket girl/'quay cur' sings again about her lost
locket and unfortunate circumstances
which, after a short coda and fantastic
intro, launches us into "Straight Street," all of which
is sung by Eleanor. I think Clap Clap Mike is dead-on about the
meaning of this song: it's about an unsuccessful Ericsson cell phone
salesman (or woman, but probably not) who cannot seem to sell anything
to anyone anywhere in the world. The song opens in Damascus, Syria
(notable for being the site of Saul's conversion to Christianity,
and contrary to the revival in "I Lost My Dog," Eleanor
is specifically "staring off the other way" in Damascus),
moves to a war-torn and impoverished area (which is probably still
in the Middle East, given the accompanying verses), and heads back
to a larger city for the third verse, in which, in my favorite twist,
his phones are publicly stoned based on a rumor spread by a Nokia
salesman that they contain pig parts. Fired, the salesman goes to
Georgia to try to sell off the contents of abandoned spas and convents
(insinuating nicely that the salesman has lost his faith since Damascus).
There, he runs into a colleague at a conference who convinces him
to try to get a job in Azerbaijan by cold-calling the headquarters
in Houston. The Texans pass, and the final verse, which is almost
identical to the first, has the salesman back in Damascus, repeating
his earlier attempt to sell phones, with the same results.
This song develops the theme of lack of
success from a lack of communication. Just as the locket girl failed
to get protection from the Inuit, the Straight Street salesman cannot
gain the trust of the locals in the Middle East in order to sell
them cell phones. The Middle East, with its convergence of the ancient
(in the form of religion and culture) and the modern (in the form
of money and access to technology) is a particularly choice setting
for this song, too. Like the locket girl who is still attributing
her bad luck to the lost locket, the Straight St. salesman hasn't
learned much from his mistakes by the end of the song.
Although this song feels like it takes place
in the past, with its Moby Dickish love for sailing, the
details fix it in the present. The plot is fairly straightforward:
Eleanor is the first-time captain of a Sunfish sail-powered ship,
working with shipmates she knows well to deliver the best blueberries
from the USA (Grand Rapids, Michigan, to be precise) to Hong Kong.
Everything is going well (and the music comments wonderfully on
this, with great frantic 'loading' music and majestic 'sailing'
music), and Eleanor is so overwhelmed by her positive feelings that
she forces her shipmates to switch off the porn they're watching
and drink Scotch with her in the morning. They are there, taking
in the pleasure of the ocean and the Scotch, when pirates slip up
on starboard, undetected by their radar.
Matt sings an interlude as a sailor thinking
about loading the cargo. He saw a girl waving at the ship and asks
who she knows. She tells him "no one there yet, but wait, see
what you get," probably a reference to the pirates who will
take the ship. She is likely down at the dock to disable their radar.
Back on the ship, Matt and Captain Eleanor (and
presumably the rest of the crew) are drinking to the freedom of
the ocean, saying that they will never go home. This turns out to
Captain Eleanor takes over the narrative again,
repeating that the radar didn't pick up the pirates bearing down
on them, followed by an amazing musical interlude of 'pirate' music
and sad 'battle' music. Captured, Eleanor faces down the pirates,
who are demanding the blueberries (it seems likely, since they've
captured her ship and thus the cargo already, that the blueberries
must be under lock-and-key). The pirates kill two of Eleanor's men
to show how serious they are. Eleanor refuses them and winds up
drowned at the bottom of the sea with her blueberries. Cue 'drowning'
Wonderful stuff here: the communication breakdown
is in the disabled radar machine, which fails to warn Eleanor, a
first-time captain and due to make some mistakes, about the approaching
pirates. Matt also presumably could have told someone about his
weird encounter on the docks, but he thought nothing of it until
it was too late. The blueberries destined for Hong Kong end up at
the bottom of the ocean along with prideful Eleanor. Has she learned
anything? Probably not. Her professed pride in keeping the blueberries
from the pirates indicates that she would do the same thing again.
Clap Mike's analysis here is particularly brilliant, and I wouldn't
be able to disagree with him if he hadn't gone to the trouble of
positing a complete story. My interpretation is different, but I
should emphasize that I wouldn't have even known were to begin without
The first part of this
song is an epic high-school scenario. The primary character is Melinda,
who hates her sister because she chews loudly and tattles to their
grandmother (at the West Glen Ellen Rest Home) about how Melinda
called someone a whore and a bitch and got into a fight. In retaliation,
Melinda tells her grandmother that her sister is pregnant, and the
father's name is Tad. She confronts her sister the next day, but
her sister just "queen-bee turned and walked away." (Delicious!)
The next segment is a conversation between her
Melinda's sister and her boyfriend, Tony. Mike thinks that Melinda
may be imagining the conversation or that the perspective may have
shifted, but, going with my theory, I think that Melinda is eavesdropping
on her sister over the phone and, as she can't hear Tony's side
of the conversation, is projecting his spaced-out response to the
sister's lovey-dovey overtures. He imagines the sister as a bird
in her blue-green sweater chirping at him. He mentally mocks her
questions about his day by refusing to go out, then mentally chirping
like a bird at her prattle. She tells him that she has made enemies
of two girls, but she's not upset about either of these.
Later, Tony goes out to buy a goalie glove, planning
to meet another woman, Jessica, in the back of a restaurant. The
sister confronts him, telling him that she's heard from someone
(probably Melinda) that he's cheating on her. It's true, but Tony
doesn't admit it. He wonders who saw Jessica driving to meet him
on Wolf Road. He's worried about his reputation, so he tries to
get Melinda's sister to be more discreet by rolling up the windows
and talking in code. When she hears about this, Melinda taunts her
sister about seeing Tony and Jessica together, comparing herself
to "the little bird at her back door" and the "little
bird through her chimney" (which is weirdly sexual, so maybe
I'm wrong). Also, notice that both sisters have now been
compared to birds.
The narrative abruptly switches to the perspective
of a world traveler, who may be any of the previous women (except
Melinda - watch how the song uses first, second, and third person:
first person as sung by Eleanor is almost always Melinda; first
person as sung by Matt is only in the final section), but is probably
the sister or a new character. The traveler steals credit cards
to finance her trip from Chris Michaels' purse, buys yogurt and
a Young Miss magazine while waiting in the terminal, and
then leaves a nasty message on someone's phone. She has a layover
in Aden, Yemen, and then goes to Delhi, where the police catch her.
In the third part, she then either remembers
or fabricates a story about a 19th century British solder who has
taken a native wife in India. The judge sentences him to hard labor
in the Bombay Army and demands that he give up his wife, but he
escapes and makes his way to a dam in British-occupied Burma, also
known as Aracan (not a Narakan Dam, as written out on the lyric
sheet; pay attention, people!). Later, the soldier and his wife
have to make a run for Madras, where he gets a job as a coxswain,
and tries to motivate his lazy crew.
Meanwhile, in the present, the traveler's boyfriend
(who I'll go ahead and call Tony) picks her up from jail. She set
off his car alarm and continues musing about southern India (or
Columbo, Sri Lanka, in this case), while he realizes that she is
going to leave him before he leaves her.
Damn! What does this all mean? We have
communications breakdowns between the fighting sisters, between
Melinda's sister and cheating Tony, and between the traveler/Melinda's
sister and the police. And what's with the previous life memory?
We have interrupted travel when the traveler is arrested in India.
We have people learning things, or not learning things: Melinda's
retaliation drives her sister to travel to India (or, possibly,
lose her mind and believe that she's traveled to India), and leads
Tony to realize that although he wants out of the relationship,
she's already out of the relationship -- in a completely
Paw Paw Tree
Back to the 16th century, where Eleanor is a ne'er-do-well Spanish
Army deserter ("yellow coat") set ashore somewhere in
the Americas or the Caribbean. While begging in a Spanish colony,
she is whipped and sentenced to hang, presumably for being a vagabond
or deserter. While tied into a tree to await her execution, she
thinks back to how much she hated working in the silver mines, but
still wishes she were there now. She knows that she has stolen something
- possibly the silver that would later be found and turned into
a certain significant locket - and hidden it, tied it with brown
twine, high in the mountains beyond the reach of Spain.
The lack of communication in this song is in
the disconnect between the narrator begging for what she lacks and
the lashing and death sentence she gets in return. It doesn't seem
as if she learns much, but she is awfully stoic about her impending
My Dog Was Lost But Now He's Found
Easily the silliest song on an album full of sublimely silly songs.
In "My Dog Was Lost But Now He's Found," Eleanor was mean
to her dog (actually her significant other, given this album's tendency
to refer to people in animal terms). She looks all over town and
time, from the DQ to the town crier. She searches for him in death
("stood on the corner and called up the coroner"), checks
the places of commerce (the market), and goes into debt bribing
the police to look for him. She finally finds her dog after selflessly
giving money to the pound; he's an evangelist now, preaching at
a Wednesday night revival meeting. In the Luke the Drifter meaning
of the phrase, her dog was lost but now he's found.
This song is the opposite of "Paw Paw Tree"
in terms of stoicism about fate. Eleanor knows that she wants her
dog back, but he's been claimed by religion by the time that she
finds him. We don't know what this means to her. Their communication
problem stems from the first lines of the song, when she explains
that she kicked her dog and was mean to him, leading him to leave
This song doesn't have a coherent narrative at all, but each of
the three parts involves one party helping another. In the first
part of the song, Eleanor is a wealthy lawyer in the late 19th or
early 20th century who has fallen out of grace in Mason City, Iowa
and been forced to retreat to her father's house. She's hiding her
business from her father, because he is an influential person and
she's using his name to do business. The letter from Mason City
that opens the song is from an Aetna Life Insurance agent who has
lent a gentleman money on the attorney's recognizance and taken
a 2.6% fee. After reading the letter, the attorney writes another
letter attempting to help a widow in Riceville, Iowa from being
thrown out of her house. She is presumably a Dunley (check
out the story here), but the other Dunleys won't help. Eleanor
is worried that the Banker's Trust won't give the widow an extension
to get her mortgage note together, because if they do, they'll be
setting an unwanted precedent. Finally, the attorney writes a flattering
letter to Des Moines -- possibly to the Banker's Trust, in relation
for the Riceville widow, but maybe on other matters. Mr. Nelson,
who may be the attorney's father or an interested party on behalf
of the Riceville widow, is too proud to ask for an extension, so
Eleanor is asking for one instead.
This song doesn't cohere narratively at all,
but each of the three parts involves one party helping another.
In the first part of the song, Eleanor is a wealthy lawyer in the
late 19th or early 20th century who has fallen out of grace in Mason
City, Iowa and been forced to retreat to her father's house. She's
hiding her business from her father, because (I'm assuming here)
her father is some sort of influential person and she's using her
father's name to do business. The letter from Mason City that opens
the song is from an Aetna Life Insurance agent who has lent a gentleman
money on the attorney's recognizance and taken a 2.6% fee. After
reading the letter, the attorney writes another letter attempting
to help a widow in Riceville, Iowa from being thrown out of her
house. She is presumably a Dunley (), but the other Dunleys won't
help. Eleanor is worried that the Banker's Trust won't give the
widow an extension to get her mortgage note together, because if
they give her an extension, they'll be setting an unwanted precedent.
Finally, the attorney writes a flattering letter to Des Moines,
possibly to the Banker's Trust in relation to the Riceville widow,
but maybe on other matters. Mr. Nelson, who may be the attorney's
father or an interested party on behalf of the Riceville widow,
is too proud to ask for an extension, so Eleanor is asking for one
Okay so far?
In the second part of the song, Matt sends the
listeners cross-country on extinct railroad lines. The lines didn't
always connect, so this isn't a literal journey through space, but
many of the lines mentioned didn't overlap in space, so this is
a journey through time, connecting the Progressive-era Iowa attorney
segment with the Prohibition. The Oregon Short Line ran along the
Oregon Trail through Oregon, Idaho, and Utah, including a leg through
Salt Lake City, and was sold in 1903. The Pere Marquette ran across
the Midwest into New York starting in 1900 (although it didn't run
to Salt Lake City, so this couldn't be a literal line in space,
even given the temporal issues). Michigan Central refers to an abandoned
railroad station in Detroit. I suspect that West Madison doesn't
mean the street in Chicago, but western Madison County in New York,
where one can find Crumb Hill Road and Crumb Hill Cemetery. I don't
know for a fact, but I'd guess that this was the site of some sort
of Prohibition booze route, thus the reference to the railroad men
(forgers, molders, blacksmiths, and boilermakers) who weren't on
the make and the "cure for shaky hands". In other words,
the singer wants the listener to make a cross-country booze run
The third part of the song - the 'Nabs' section
- is composed of an Artful Dodger-ish combination of British and
American working class slang, which are deciphered in the following
paragraphs. The main action is that Eleanor gives advice to some
street urchins and to her accomplice while waiting for stolen goods.
The Eleanor 'Dodger' greets her street gang with
"How are you my nabs?/Little tender-footed crabs?" "Nabs"
is either an ironic comparison of the street urchins with cops or
made-up slang for thieves. "Crabs" is 19th century British
slang for disagreeable persons or people who borrow money without
returning it. Eleanor smacks them around a bit with her brass knuckles:
"Meet my knuckle duster."
She then says, "You geeched that gazoon's
gow." Many sources claim that this is nonsense, but "gazoon"
appears to be some kind of Asian slang for a pompous person. "Pai
gow" is a Chinese gambling game played with dominoes, and the
high play is a "gee joon." Say it fast and you've geeched
a gow. She refers to how they "tried to break into the bow"
(of a ship, presumably). She dismisses this failed attempt with
"go wipe your nose."
Later she's just "hanging out with some
Noler knockums," waiting until her "stack comes."
There was a trucking company called Finke and Noler, and I'd guess
the "knockums" are those who knock over Noler trucks.
Eleanor is waiting for the stolen shipment ("the stacks")
to come in.
Later she's talking to a "Prussian who got
jackered," presumably referring to the German Noler driver,
who was in on the robbery. She calls him "my snapper till your
(sic -- should be "'til you're") knockered,"
meaning in 19th century British slang that he's her accomplice until
someone - Eleanor, really - rips him off. She orders her accomplice
to "get on the snam," which doesn't mean anything in the
context of the song. (A possible interpretation: Snam is a natural
gas and telecom fiber-optic provider in Italy, which plays into
the overall 'flow of capital & information' theme of the album,
although it's a bit of a stretch, as well as being outside of the
main time period of the rest of the dialect.)
Eleanor is still talking with the Prussian when
she says, "The chivman wants your chip." A chivman is
a guy who's skilled with a knife, and a chip refers to a shilling.
She advises him, "Better dummy up then go dip," meaning
that he should pay the chivman, and then go pickpocket more. "You're
outta turn," she concludes. He's either out of time or speaking
his mind unadvisedly.
Finally Eleanor tells someone (I like to think
that this is more advice to the "nabs") that she's learned
that "the lowest form of life is the buffer nabber, even worse
than the dicer stabber." Aw, she loves animals: a "buffer
nabber" is a dog-thief who sells the pelts, á la
Cruella de Vil, which Eleanor sees as lower than a Jack The Ripper
type. She loves animals more than people.
So, in "Mason City," a wealthy Midwestern
attorney attempts to help people, despite his father's disapproval;
a drunk sends a messenger across the country (and across time to
find some booze); and a criminal gives advice to young pickpockets.
Other than the reference to the "snam", all three seem
to take place at different times in the past. All three involve
someone helping others out of compassion, although the relationship
of the helper and helped shifts through all the parts. In the first,
the singer is an "I" helping a third party - the gentleman
who needs a loan, the widow who is going to be evicted, and the
person requesting an extension. In the second the helpee is the
"I" sending "you" - the helper - across time
and space to get the speaker's booze. In the third the helper is
again the first person "I" helping "you," the
"Mason City" shows that helping
others more or less selflessly opens lines of communication
that elsewhere on the album are closed. Despite her alienation from
her father, the attorney receives, understands, and mails letters
all over Iowa. The drunk's friend bends the fabric of space-time
to get his buddy a drink. The Eleanor 'Dodger' gives advice to street
urchins and other Industrial-age lowlifes for no immediate financial
reward: altruism breaks the curse of the lost locket. However, despite
their more-or-less altruistic intentions, all of the characters
gain in more subtle ways. The attorney has self-respect, the drunk
gets his liquor, and the 'Artful Dodger' stays ahead of the game.
In "Mason City," things don't go perfectly, but no one
is a failure, either. Clap
Clap's take (including an early version of this section).
Chief Inspector Blancheflower
Clap Mike points out, the first part of "Blancheflower"
is pretty much about Matt's attention deficit disorder. Without
regard to meter, Matt sings over out-of-phase and -time keyboard
lines about wanting to be a typewriter repairman but being unable
to concentrate and get good grades. In a perfect summation of the
problem, the refrain goes "I had a dexadrine-hyperactivity-selective
attend-to-relevant-information tempo-taken-in told-to mechanism-coping
concept. Put my head down, crumple my paper." The man can't
even explain what's wrong with him without running through all of
the somewhat-related tangents. Watching construction workers after
school while waiting to talk with his guidance counselor, he thinks
to himself that he'll never be able to do even that low-prestige
kind of work. So, lacking any other option, he joins the police
force and becomes Chief Inspector Blancheflower (this part may be
a fantasy, or it may be a leap in time and space, as with the subcontinent
section of "Chris Michaels" and the train section of "Mason
The second part of the song, as sung by Eleanor,
appears to be a 19th century police investigation in Dumbarton,
Scotland. A bartender calls Blancheflower to the city after
witnessing a farmer carrying a knife and suggesting that he has
killed his young wife. Blancheflower arrives, and catches the farmer
holding a gun and indicating that he has either killed or intends
to kill his son. Blancheflower questions the farmer about the whereabouts
of his wife and, upon hearing the ambiguous "nowhere you'll
see," locks him up. Blancheflower then departs to take tea
with a local nobleman, Sir Robert Grayson. The farmer, who has escaped
the storeroom where Blancheflower stashed him, bursts into Grayson's
manor through the window with a sword, but instead of hurting anyone,
begs forgiveness from the lord.
Blancheflower then travels forward across time
and space to take a deposition from a local who has murdered his
brother. Perhaps in deference to the time and place he's just come
from, Blancheflower shares a beer with the fratricide (drinking
was not forbidden in 19th century jails), who tells him his story.
The fratricide drives to Springfield (could be
any Springfield) to hang out with his brother Michael. Michael is
withdrawn, and when confronted, reveals that he's dating his brother's
ex-girlfriend Jenny. The fratricide is furious, and goes to face
Jenny about his suspicions that she's going to hurt his brother
to get back at him. At some point (undisclosed in the song), he
kills his brother. Blancheflower, somewhat depressed by this story,
takes his wife's car to Springfield (possibly the same Springfield,
but, as the Simpsons like to point out, not necessarily) to have
a drink with an old friend.
Clap Mike thinks the Blancheflower story is made up, and that
the fratricide's story is part of the English murder mystery; I
think that the story is about (non-literal) emotional growth. ADD
Matt, although he feels hopeless about his ability to handle a job,
later grows up to become Blancheflower, who isn't necessarily fixed
in time. From the extreme of "Mason City," in which characters
overcome adversity by communicating well, every character in "Blancheflower"
is unable to communicate with others. ADD Matt can barely control
his attention span long enough to finish a test; Scotland Blancheflower
doesn't even question the farmer, who, when given the chance, doesn't
really want to kill anyone. The Springfield fratricide kills his
brother when surprised with the news that his brother is dating
his ex, recalling somewhat the competitive sisters in "Chris
Michaels." He confronts the ex, but they can't talk to each
other honestly any longer. Blancheflower, depressed on hearing the
story, mirrors the fratricide's actions by driving to see an old
friend in a town with the same name as the one in which the fratricide
killed his brother. No one really learns anything; wheels are spun.
Clap Mike thinks that Eleanor imagines the kidnapping in this
song, but since the narrative universe of Blueberry Boat isn't really
concerned with reality, I don't think there's any reason to take
the song at less than face value.
At any rate, in "Spaniolated", Eleanor,
a young research volunteer, is walking by the docks late one night
when she's kidnapped by an old man and forced to sing to him on
his boat. The overblown ending (when Eleanor sings, "The pain,
the pain in Spain falls mainly on me") is Mike's main reason
for suspecting that this is adolescent melodrama. However, assuming
that Eleanor is telling the truth, the Spanish setting connects
to the lost silver in "Paw Paw Tree", and the feeling
of being cursed connects to the lost locket from "Quay Cur."
Eleanor's character, perhaps unknowingly, is carrying the anguish
of these other characters. The only communication in the song is
when the old man asks Eleanor how she's doing before kidnapping
her. She finally learns that she would rather be back in Chicago,
in a more innocent time. Which brings us to
In the first part of this song, which takes place during the 1917
World Series, a Serbian-American living in Chicago ruminates about
his friends, the First World War, the 1916 assassination attempt
by anarchists on Cardinal Mundelein, and his beloved White Sox.
The music through this part is jittery, atonal noise with a very
catchy melody, to which the lyrics are sung, on top. The White Sox
fan's friends are Janko (a common Serbian name), Jerko (more common
than you'd think, possibly a Serbo-Croatian), and Jerry. They drink
some Pilsners, and he thinks about rich Chicagoans who celebrate
by drinking sherry -- a hint at his leftist politics.
White Sox fan is considering signing up for the Great War, and is
learning German in preparation. He cites some of the Allied propaganda
from the late period of WWI, which accused German soldiers of executing
nurses and civilians in annexed areas (Belgium in particular). He
then thinks of how the war is going back in his beloved Serbia:
it's a little-known fact that Slovakia (which was then part of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire) and Croatia used the cover of war to wage
genocide against ethnic Serbians. The singer promises that his native
tongue will never die.
He then thinks about Happy Felsch, a White Sox
outfielder who would later be part of the 'Eight Men Out' who threw
the World Series in 1919. The White Sox fan can hardly bring himself
to applaud Felsch, who is German-American, but decided that Felsch
is such a great batter that he thinks he just might.
After a short, splashy interlude, the White Sox
fan thinks about an assassination attempt the previous year on Progressive
reformer Cardinal Mundelein. An Italian anarchist, Nestor
Dondoglio, also known as Jean
Crones, attempted to poison the Cardinal and 200 other people
during a dinner in the Cardinal's honor by pouring arsenic in their
soup. However, Dondoglio (who escaped into obscurity) used too much
arsenic, causing the guests to vomit, so no one died. The White
Sox fan's knowledge of the event is detailed, so perhaps we're supposed
to think that he's a Serbian anarchist.
Then he's back to the game, where the Giants
(Gigantics, to his non-English-speaking mind) are getting beat by
pitcher Red Farber, which causes him to feel at home in America,
possibly for the first time. He excludes from his vision of brotherhood
those from up north, which could mean Canadians, but probably means
the Germans and Austrians (north of Serbia).
Then, the whole song shifts into one of the most
haunting melodies on the album. Eleanor sings, "So I asked
Dad, why can't we ever win, ever win, once? / Go ask Dad, why can't
you ever win, ever win once?" Wow. I think that this part has
nothing to do with the first part of the song's narrative, but is
instead an interjection by the Iowa attorney of "Mason City,"
who is the only character to specifically talk about her father
on the album. Perhaps they have lost their fortune. Perhaps Eleanor
has lost her faith.
It's interesting that the White Sox fan in "1917"
has open lines of communication all around him, and it's his love
of baseball that gives him a feeling of oneness with his adopted
home in America. He even mentions specifically "the healthy
back and forth" of rapprochement with his neighbor. He is easily
one of the two most secure and positive characters on the album
(the other is the Catamaran Man on "Turning Round"). Eleanor's
singer in part two, however, can't accept responsibility for losing
and wants to blame her father (notice the shift from "we"
to "you"). There is a hint of the curse of the lost locket
This song is about the coming of Industrialization to small towns,
as in The Magnificent Ambersons, and doesn't seem to carry
any complex meaning. Over a lilting calliope-esque tune, the singer,
who I believe we can assume is landed gentry, laments steam trains,
aeroplanes, and livery cars, and threatens to drown herself in her
wedding gown if the racket doesn't quit. The wordplay is enormous
fun: "I hate the steam train that whistles woozy my bird brain,
/ That sends my Spaniel insane. / And I'll stop riding side saddle
if they don't stop the clickity clattle, / I'll jump in the undertow
penguin paddle / and drown in my wedding gown." Ogden Nash
couldn't have said it better. Between Eleanor's verses, Matt sings
verses that serve to re-emphasize the point, for example: "I
was drinking by the Des Plaines River / when the naught of night
/ Served for making me shiver / and me & the squirrels would
hold hands / And quiver / 'cause that damnable diesel never fails
to deliver." Hey, it rhymes, too!
This song and the following two are basically
outside of the concept behind Blueberry Boat: there's no
transfer, no communication, nothing learned, and nothing gained.
That said, "Birdie Brain" would be a great addition to
any mix-tape for a 5-year-old.
Like "Birdie Brain," "Turning Round" seems outside
of the main Blueberry Boat concept. The singer sings about
how much she loves her cousin's simple life: he owns a catamaran,
sleeps in his car, listens to dub, smokes pot, and dreams of waves
and "sails turning round". After the lines, there's a
minute and a half of the melody with crashing piano chords, so beautiful
that it seems to stretch to the horizon. There's no communication
here, but this song does seem more prescriptive than most on the
album. The Catamaran Man isn't much, but he's a truly happy person,
at peace with his place in the world.
The final song on Blueberry Boat is, like the previous two, less
a Blueberry Boat song than seemingly part of an EP stuck
on the end for fun. "Wolf Notes" is a trifling account
of practicing music through one's life. In the first part, over
out-of-control arpeggios, Eleanor, as the musician's mother, demands
that the musician play her a tune (best line: "Plug in your
keyboard, / your symphonic sound samba Samsung: / pick out a tune
today." As her demand grows in volume and intensity, the music
shifts to an infectious melody with more calliope synth-flutes that
soon becomes a sing-along. The musician talks about preparing his
violin to play. The "wolf notes" of the title are his
first screechy attempts to run his bow over the strings. The song
then shifts to a few sad minor key lines, which end the album. As
with the previous two songs, nothing is lost or gained. These three
songs aren't fundamentally narrative, nor do they progress the themes
of the rest of the album. It's probably best to consider them a
catchy EP tacked on to the end of a messy, brilliant concept album,
but there's no evidence to support that idea.
1500s: "Paw Paw Tree": Spanish settlements
1700s: "Quay Cur": Girl loses locket, captured by pirates,
1880s: "Chris Michaels": India completely under British
1900s: "Mason City": Iowa attorney
Inspector Blancheflower": Blancheflower in Scotland
Brain": Birdie Brain Woman hates industrialization
1900: "Mason City": Pere Marquette Company formed,
1903: "Mason City": Oregon Short Line to Salt Lake
City is sold
1913: "Mason City": Michigan Central Station in
Detroit until 1987
1916: "1917": Nestor Dondogio attempts to poison
1917: "1917": White Sox win World Series
White Sox fan learns German
1970s: "Chief Inspector Blancheflower": Blancheflower
Boy has ADD
1980s: "Wolf Notes": Wolf Notes Boy learns to play music
Michaels": Girls fight in school
1990s: "Spaniolated": Spaniolated Girl is kidnapped
2000s: "Straight Street": Ericsson lost in Middle East
Boat": The Sunfish hit by pirates on maiden voyage
Dog Was Lost But Now He's Found": Lost dog
Inspector Blancheflower": Blancheflower visits fratricide
Round": Catamaran Man sails
Notes": Wolf Notes Man plays violin
WHAT IT ALL MEANS
When put in chronological order, other than the
leaps far back in history in "Paw Paw Tree" and "Quay
Cur," most of the songs take place during the Progressive Era
(around the turn of the 20th century) and the present. Several of
the songs explore robbery, murder, and piracy in the different time
periods: "Paw Paw Tree," "Quay Cur," "Mason
City" (Nabs section), "Chief Inspector Blancheflower,"
"1917," "Straight Street," and "Blueberry
Boat." Love is covered in "Chris Michaels," "My
Dog Was Lost" (love of God), "1917" (love for your
fellow man, that is), and "Wolf Notes" (love of music).
"Wolf Notes," "Blancheflower," "1917,"
and "Mason City" (attorney section) discuss the importance
of practicing and struggling towards a goal, and "Birdie Brain"
provides the contrast of a woman who only ineffectually tries to
change her surroundings. Sibling and family relationships turn up
in "Chris Michaels," "Turning Round," and "Blancheflower."
Mind alteration plays a part in "Turning Round" (pot),
"1917" (beer), and "Mason City" (booze in the
train part). Almost every song pushes towards a goal, with the notable
exception of "Spaniolated," which shares few themes with
any other songs.
The first Grand Unified Blueberry Boat Theory:
all of the other songs have been made up by the Spaniolated girl,
who is trying to comfort herself. This is how characters can leap
across time and space and how songs can reach into the minds of
different narrators. It's possible that the White Sox fan of "1917,"
which shares most of the same themes with all of the other songs,
is someone she knew when she was young.
The second GUBBT: the songs can be grouped
by boat travel and other travel or transfer of information. Most
songs involve boat travel: "Paw Paw Tree," "Quay
Cur," "Spaniolated," "Turning Round," and
"Blueberry Boat." Others involve other types of travel:
"Chris Michaels" (plane and foot), "Mason City"
(train, letter, and truck), "Blancheflower" (driving),
"1917" (foot and, presumably, wire), "Birdie Brain"
(trains, planes, automobiles, and horse), "Straight Street"
(planes and trucks), and "My Dog Was Lost" (foot). The
only song not dealing with travel is "Wolf Notes." If
we group this way, we can see that the boat songs are all tragedies,
save "Turning Round," which is about learning to let go
of society. The non-boat travel songs are more complex, and the
main character doesn't end up dead or in dire circumstances.
The final GUBBT: the album is a family
history. Blancheflower and the "Wolf Notes" musician are
the same man, who is brother to the "Straight Street"
salesman and the "Blueberry Boat" captain, and cousin
to the Catamaran Man. The "Lost My Dog" girl, who I've
placed during the same time-period, isn't necessarily a present-day
character, but could also be a sister in this family. Moving backwards,
the "Spaniolated" girl would be a younger version of the
"Blueberry Boat" captain, and may also be Melinda from
"Chris Michaels," meaning that her sister is perhaps either
the "Straight Street" salesman or the "Lost My Dog"
girl. Their great-grandfather is the Serbian White Sox fan of "1917."
All of the other characters - the railroad drunk of "Mason
City", the Iowa attorney, the Eleanor 'Dodger', the Scotland
Blancheflower, the "Birdie Brain" woman, the British soldier
gone native in India, the locket girl, the shanghaied sailor, the
Spanish deserter - could also similarly be ancestors. Why not?
Unfortunately, all of these theories involve
overlaying a narrative where there isn't really one. In her essay
"A Bolt from the Blue," Mary McCarthy discussed how a
single tiny clue in the index revealed that in Nabokov's Pale
Fire, the primary narrator, the King of Zembla Charles Kinbote,
was actually a mad language professor and Russian émigré
named Botkin. Unfortunately, I haven't found a similar tiny piece
of evidence to support any of the three Grand Unified Blueberry
Boat theories. All we have left is the mystery and fun of the
language and music.