No Bolts From The Blueberry

Grasping at the meaning of the Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat

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 thought.

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.


Quay Cur
"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 Pepsi.

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 Clap Blog:

half hour sandglass (time is passing)
seven saker round shot / ice for the moonshine / and chichsaneg (alcohol)
Canyglow (kiss me), canyglow, canyglow don't say nugo (no)
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…

Straight Street
…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.

Blueberry Boat
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 be prophetic.

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' music.

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 Clap's take.

Chris Michaels
Clap 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 his take.

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 different way.

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 doom. Clap Clap's take.

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 her. Clap Clap's take.

Mason City
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 instead.

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 through time.

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 pickpockets.

"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
As Clap 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 City").

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 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 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.

The 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 there.

Birdie Brain
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.

Turning Round
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.

Wolf Notes
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 in Caribbean
1700s: "Quay Cur": Girl loses locket, captured by pirates, escapes
1880s: "Chris Michaels": India completely under British rule
1900s: "Mason City": Iowa attorney
              "Mason City": Nabs
              "Chief Inspector Blancheflower": Blancheflower in Scotland
              "Birdie Brain": Birdie Brain Woman hates industrialization
1900:  "Mason City": Pere Marquette Company formed, closes 1947
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 Mundelein
1917:  "1917": White Sox win World Series
              "1917": White Sox fan learns German
1970s: "Chief Inspector Blancheflower": Blancheflower Boy has ADD
1980s: "Wolf Notes": Wolf Notes Boy learns to play music
              "Chris Michaels": Girls fight in school
1990s: "Spaniolated": Spaniolated Girl is kidnapped
2000s: "Straight Street": Ericsson lost in Middle East markets
              "Blueberry Boat": The Sunfish hit by pirates on maiden voyage
              "My Dog Was Lost But Now He's Found": Lost dog
              "Chief Inspector Blancheflower": Blancheflower visits fratricide
              "Turning Round": Catamaran Man sails
              "Wolf Notes": Wolf Notes Man plays violin


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.