Ezra Furman - Transangelic Exodus
by Evan Phillips
Ezra Furman is not your typical songwriter. As a gender fluid, devoutly Jewish, genre-hopping punk, his releases since departing from original band Ezra Furman and the Harpoons have been just as idiosyncratic as the man himself. Furman’s lyrics alone frequently deal in isolation, uncertainty, love, God and sea creatures and his current backing band The Visions (FKA The Boyfriends) provide the perfect canvas for Furman to bear his soul. I say all of this because Transangelic Exodus feels distinct right out of the gate. The tracks teasing the record’s release were darker, more instrumentally sparse than before- in the sense that there seemed to be distance between the players on this one- and the lyrics, well, let’s take the opener: Suck the Blood from My Wound, which Ezra shouts in the chorus, referencing something vampiric, parasitic even, that’s leeching on the living. The song, and indeed the album, deals with Ezra and his Angel, fresh out of hospital with a literal pair of wings in his back, trying to outrun the law and possibly even the past in his red Camaro because, as Furman says, “to them we’ll always be freaks”. While in the outro, he howls a line from Romeo and Juliet; ‘a plague on both your houses’, apparently in reference to Congress. It’s a bleak conclusion to an adrenaline surged opening number.
Transangelicism is, according to Furman, a condition where human beings grow wings and “manifest that they are or were an angel” which leads others to distrust and persecute them for their appearance. It’s quite the metaphor in that it can represent just about anything from physical appearance, mental state, gender expression, sexual preference etc. that thousands of people the world over are discriminated against for. Second track Driving Down to L.A recognises this, Ezra singing “There’s one law and I know no other / it’s the law of love I’m bound to” over distant minor chords in the verse before bursts of drums and electronic noise in the chorus. The instrumentals become even more diverse on tracks God Lifts Up the Lowly and Peel My Orange Every Morning that feature plucks and bows of dark sounding strings that add both tension and drama to Furman’s stream of consciousness style lyrics on the latter, and some instrumental depth to the former. Meanwhile, No Place is frenetic with bustling rhythms and distorted saxophone riffs peppered throughout while Ezra delicately utters ‘this whole world is no place at all’.
Although some of the tropes of Furman’s music of the last few albums have been scrapped, on the jerky but jagged Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill, the punkish spirit of Richard Hell that has always touched Ezra’s songs is clearly alive and kicking. There’s something in the propulsive off-kilter drums and unruly bass here, as well as the piercing synthesiser that pops in for a riff in the verses, that is so wonderfully chaotic it seems almost impossible that it might ever be performed live (yet the band have, amazingly, already made it a regular). The Great Unknown fits a similar mould, with spacey guitar chords and tribal tom hits that evoke some queer modern-day Western of all things. In fact, it becomes apparent around the halfway point that the framework of running from the law and falling in love with an angel exist more as a focus for Ezra’s lyrics rather than as direction for the music itself. It’s a concept album except when it isn’t; and it’s surprisingly refreshing this way.
If the album was a more strictly put together concept album, a track like Psalm 151 might have seemed out of place. Instead it’s a tender love song with three sumptuous guitar chords and shifting synthesiser melodies. It’s also the sweet to the sour of Come Here Get Away From Me, where Ezra spits “I believe in God but I don’t believe we’re getting out of this one” while disquieting guitars stare down bitter sounding strings and woodwind. By the time the album comes to a close there’s barely a musical base Ezra and The Visions haven’t covered, so it’s maybe not surprising that I Lost My Innocence, with its jaunty, Good Vibrations organ intro, then erupts into an uncharacteristically sunny song about popping the cherry with “a boy named Vincent”. A strange conclusion to an album such as this? In many ways yes, but as previously mentioned, Ezra Furman is not your typical songwriter and it’s to his - and the album’s - credit that their greatest strength is in their ability to surprise you.
The difficulty is knowing how to sum all of this up. Full marks certainly for Furman’s lyrics, although they have been consistently excellent and authentic for years now, and indeed the varied nature of the instrumentals deserves a gold star as well. I have my suspicions that the album won’t be for everyone, that even fans of Ezra’s previous output may not find as much to like here, but for those that do it’s a record that paints some quite daring lines in very bold strokes, if I might employ the vocabulary of an absolute non-starter for a moment. I can guarantee that even if you don’t like what you hear, you’ll almost certainly have enjoyed the road trip.