The Skinny on the former Harpoon’s Twelve Nudes
Artist: Ezra Furman
Album: Twelve Nudes
Label: Bella Union
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
For someone the age and ilk of Ezra Furman, irony was the immediate go-to reaction while growing up. No longer a clever literary device or artistic tool for exposing hypocrisy, irony, by the mid-1990s, had become simple snark.
When your Disney cartoons have characters who droll out “Whatever,” roll eyes, and make references to Peckinpah movies, it’s not irony anymore, it’s a world assumed as corrupt before you’ve even fully learned what honesty is.
And it is out of that snark-soaked world that Ezra Furman rose in the mid-2000s, as leader of the Harpoons. Like Cyndi Lauper and Lou Reed before him, Furman didn’t feel the freedom within a band context, and had to go it mostly alone. His burgeoning sexual identity was taking equal footing with his songwriting talents, and he obviously needed to fully explore that.
So go figure, he leads off his new, least irony-laden album, Twelve Nudes, with his punkiest blast since his band days, “Calm Down aka I Should Not Be Alone.” Is it an admission of maybe wanting a consistent band around him again? I’d say, from the sounds of the kind of colorless electro-snare, yes. I look forward to hearing this one live with a human. But it’s mainly a classic angry lament that he can’t find the right “one.”
“I should not be alone, the way things are going!”
And they’ve been going fairly well, career-wise. Furman went from his excellent, neo-Bowie, maybe someday rediscovered classic, Perpetual Motion People (Bella Union, 2015), to 2018’s darker, maybe someday reused as a film soundtrack, Transangelic Exodus (Bella Union). And here he combines both impulses with a renewed teen energy into maybe his best album. But that doesn’t mean Furman is satisfied. You can feel it in his voice and the mostly accelerated rhythms throughout Twelve Nudes, that Ezra Furman’s exploration – musical or gender – is far from settled.
“Evening Prayer” is a sweeping, acoustic-powered fist-pumper that turns that classic trick of inverting the prayers of those who would judge onto them. At first wondering if he might’ve wasted his twenties, Furman, if not passing a torch, points it forward: “If you’ve got the taste for transcendence, then translate your love into action, and participate in the fight now, for a dream you can truly believe.” Furman is preternaturally averse to sloganeering, but there is a time where one must throw out your own rules.
I like how Ezra Furman never tempers his scream – sweet, romantic waltz or angry punk blast, his screech matches his ever-questioning stance. The third song – traditionally the single, maybe the “best song,” or the defining statement of the album – is called “Transition from Nowhere to Nowhere.” I can’t help thinking it is about the feeling anyone can have where, after obsessively working towards a goal, aiming for something you just know is going to make you whole and happy, you still feel strange and unfulfilled. “Ambition leads nowhere,” he sings.
Nevertheless, like one of his primary influences, David Bowie, each album offers an ambitious, unexpected sonic left turn. This time, just as we might’ve expected Furman to chuck it and go work on Broadway musicals (and boy do I hope he eventually does!), he has mostly dug back into his house show emotions of scream and speed.
I suspect they chose the atypical ballad, “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend.” as the first single because, well, it’s pretty, but also because the themes couldn’t be any more relevant, aka “clickable.” A trans individual struggling with his decisions while friends around him can’t find jobs or are questioning religion. Ezra’s main spiritual concern is a heaving romanticism and the search for a lover as the over-arching impulse of life. It’s a song that could be a generation’s defining prom couple’s dance tune – were it not drenched in a style not heard or preferred for the last three generations.
VIDEO: Ezra Furman – “Calm Down aka I Should Not Be Alone”
But very soon, Twelve Nudes decamps from ironic camp and arises into a much needed personal-as-political album, one that feels like dragging yourself out of bed from a depression and attacking the day. The Hives-like robot-core of “Rated R Crusaders” slaps around Furman’s sometimes sappy solipsism with, “I don’t wanna hear prophecies of fear.”
“Trauma” is a heavy, mid-tempo, workers’ lament that uses its titular state as a transition (if you will) from Furman’s personal identity status into our current questioning of what in the fuck is happening to our country. “Years roll on and we still have not looked at our sin.” The simple, fuzzy riff lets Furman stomp along over it with some of the most solid proof that he is one of the best lyricists of his generation.
In ways, Ezra Furman aligns with Sondre Lerche – a neo-singer/songwriter harboring deep desires to sing to the back rows, with talent that matches their heroes, making whole themed albums, in an era dominated by producers dumping out singles and floating in the quasi, compartmentalized “fame” of SoundCloud dark holes.
The energizing ying to Furman’s mid-career worries yang is that there is a palpably irate spirit to this album that I think Furman needed at this point. The world kind of needs it at this point. Been waiting for some angry New Gilded Age rants? Order up!
“My Teeth Hurt” is a great title for our current state, where we all seem to be mad and grinding teeth and yelling too much. And while the tune attached matches the title’s jitters, it turns out the song is a fun romp (if its lead guitar lick is a wee too pop-punky), bleeding with a bucketful of assuring lyrics. “I refuse to call this living life, and I refuse to die!… My teeth hurt, and I don’t care. The ache inside reminds my mind my body’s really there… When pleasure lets you down you learn to lean into the pain.”
The next song? “In America,” where he states, “It’s not so terrible in America.” It’s a hooky, clear jangle run with an understated pathos about living here, and all the conflicted contradictions that come with it. Also – and maybe why it’s smart that this pops up towards the end, though it’s one of the best songs – Furman distances himself from even his own, passionate inspirations. “There are too many rock songs. Put it all in a two-minute pop song. I really-mean-it-a-lot song, for America.” America gave us Little Richard, Divine, and Prince. It also has us waking up every day to reminders that 1/3 of the country would never think of them as heroes. “I wanna go back home in America.” Don’t we all, Ezra.
But fuck getting too down. The last song is called, “What Can You Do but Rock n Roll,” and it does, emphatically, and rounds right back to Furman’s concerns for all those still finding themselves. “The kind of sex you want is the kind they’d like to make illegal.”
And he insists rock’n’roll can still aid in the fight. On Twelve Nudes, Ezra Furman somehow, in the midst of this all, can make you believe that, non-ironically.
VIDEO: Ezar Furman – “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend”