“The thing I realized is, I tend to like pretentious stuff. ‘Cause pretentious, that’s a compliment to me. It means ambitious, I like ambitious stuff.” (Ezra Furman interview, The A/V Club)
Ezra Furman was worried that calling his new album Transangelic Exodus, would sound pretentious. If you’ve been following his last few records, they’ve been screaming, queer rock n’ roll romps with angular guitars and shoo-n-doo-bahs in spades. The combination of cute skirts, stockings, and vivid lipstick combined with a five o’clock shadow might be a strong look for you if you’re not familiar. However, you’re only really pretentious if you’re talking the talk, and with this third excellent album in a row, Furman is definitely walking the walk.
On Transangelic Exodus, Furman tells a cinematic story of being on the run with his lover who is an angel. However, being angelic is illegal in this country. It’s a complete concept album that works perfectly from start to end. Lines like, “I don’t mind, I’ve got big dreams in my mind”, screech with a Bowie-like quality, jumping out at you as you listen, independent of their place in the story.
The musical arrangements are very strong, painting a unified picture of a low-budget high-talent band of misfits. There is dulcimer, cello, and xylophone in various places on the album, but always presented with jagged edges, either in the arrangements or the recording. Furman’s biting tenor voice makes almost anything sound a bit more punk, anyway. The punk ethos, for instance, is still present in songs like “Peel My Orange Every Morning”, a sub-2 minute song that features cellos sawing angrily through a distorted chorus juxtaposed with a quiet pizzicato verse.
You might not expect a tireless rocker to also be an observant, religious person who reads the Torah portion for the week while on tour, but Furman’s non-conformity goes both ways. His positions in between traditionalism and non-conformism must make for a confusing existence. His website used to feature a section called “A Guide for the Perplexed”. But this is rock n’ roll! Confusion, sex, tradition, and anger are all present in his last two albums, 2013’s Day of The Dog and 2015’s Perpetual Motion People, which triangulated the persona that this album finally finds. In an interview with Billboard, he mentions that while this is a concept album, it’s not really meant to have a beginning, middle and end, even making sure to edit out songs that built up the structure too strongly. Even the album lives in a nebulous middle place.
I mean I’ve heard plenty of concept records where it was like, “Man, why didn’t you just write songs?”
Furman’s band has changed names, too. On this album, they’re called the Visions, even though the lineup of Jorgen Jorgensen (bass), Ben Joseph (keyboards, guitar), Sam Durkes (drums) and saxophonist Tim Sandusky hasn’t changed. Jorgen is also featured heavily on cello for the first time on this album. The musicianship is top-notch, and what makes this album great for me is how the political, stylistic, and musical elements merge and serve each other. The word “Transangelic” sounds a lot like “transatlantic”, but Furman says it refers to the process of becoming an angel.
People in this universe are afraid and distrustful of people who become angels through this operation, and Furman is, thus, forced to go on the lam with his angelic lover. Themes of queerness, power, anti-authoritarianism, and love are underscored by a musical style that leans heavily American rock n’ roll, like on “Love You So Bad”. Or on “Suck The Blood from My Wound,” which is a road-ready, head bobber with an MGMT-cum-Springsteen feel.
What has kept me coming back for what I think is the 5th listen is Furman’s voice. It sounds like his vocal cords are perpetually torn up, but when he screams out, “We’ll always be freaks!“, in what has to be one of the most John Lennon-esque screams I can ever remember. I can’t help imagining myself in his shoes, flying across the heartland with an illegal angel in the passenger seat nursing bandaged wings and an eye on the rearview mirror. It might be a political act to listen to this album, and I think you should.
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