Secret Meeting score: 88
by Philip Moss
To be able to stay true to yourself as an artist in today’s music industry is an achievement in itself. And as such, Ezra Furman is not your orthodox pop star. For those of you who don’t know, Ezra is a gender-fluid Jewish man who has written and sung passionately about his faith, his depression and his happiness throughout his career. In 2014, he was going to give it all up in what must have felt like a dead end to any form of commercial success. Were it not for a sold-out show in Manchester and a good deal of arm twisting from his band mates, his musical dreams would have been over at the age of 28.
Four years on and his fortunes have changed. 2013’s Day of the Dog saw a new deal arrive the following year with Bella Union, and his 2015 Perpetual Motion People was received with critical acclaim – a pop album crammed full of 50’s skiffle and doo-wop, and 60’s ramshackle garage rock, with melodies worthy of Phil Spector’s girl groups.
With a sizeable audience in tow, the stakes for new record Transangelic Exodus are far higher. In a recent NME interview he said that he has ‘an obsession with making the best album ever made. It’s all I can think about.’ You get the impression he means it. He’s a real throwback – a quietly spoken, extremely intelligent and carefully considered role model who understands exactly where and how he fits artistically in the music industry and the world we live in.
In Ezra’s own words, the album is “not a concept record, but almost a novel or a cluster of stories on a theme. A combination of fiction and a half-true memoir. A queer outlaw saga.” So before even listening to the record, his description, the sleeve’s film noir cover image and song titles suggest a shift in tone. A tone which the record’s sleeve notes begin to explain further:
‘When my darling grew wings
And the government came for us
We lived in a red Camaro
When your body’s illegal
And the people sworn to protect you
Refuse to protect you
One may have to re-draw the map
That once represented home
And perhaps this
Was always waiting to happen
Perhaps we were always
marked for outlawhood
Ever since we were kids
Ever since we fell in love the wrong way
And the exodus began’
Suck the Blood From My Wound opens with what sounds like the muffles of someone trapped in a car boot. Then, as the boot door slams shut, a gloriously catchy guitar riff juxtaposes the song’s sinister title as Ezra erupts and begins the metaphorical journey of rescuing an angel from hospital – ‘Climbing out the hospital window, leaving tubes in a tangle. Blood on my angel’s lips blends in with his make up.’ The arrangements have also taken a turn from his last outing as synthesised drums and fuzz bass drive the song to its conclusion when, quoting Shakespeare, Ezra howls and declares ‘a plague on both your houses’. A reference, as he told the NME, to feeling to political affiliation to either party in his native America, but instead fearing that he – and many other innocent people – could get caught between ‘two warring factions’.
Driving Down to LA continues the road movie theme established in the record’s opener. However, despite LA conjuring up the glamorous image of Hollywood, Ezra toys with the idea of suicide as keyboard tinkles erupt into a riotous, Pixies-esque chorus – ‘On the cliffs, he drives real fast. He may drive his car into the ocean, maybe I don’t mind, I’ve got big dreams in my mind. I would give up my whole life for that feelin’’.
The attention to production has increased dramatically compared to previous records (despite working with the same band headed up by saxophonist/producer Tim Sandusky, who has worked on all of Ezra’s albums to date), and with its sparkling guitars, Maraschino-red dress, $8.99 at Goodwill evokes the best of Tom Verlaine’s post-Television output.
Peel My Orange Every Morning is a masterful, metaphoric mess of Lou Reed evoking lo-fi, which hangs on single acoustic stabs as Ezra opens up – ‘I am citrus: peel back my skin. Open me and expose the soft wet inside’. This is a process he takes with every new song he writes and every song he performs live, offering up his vulnerabilities to expose his deepest secrets, sorrows and regrets; just one of the reasons why he is arguably the most relatable and inspiring singer-songwriter of modern times.
Hook-filled lead single, Love You So Bad, hangs on the staccato plucks of a cello and is a clear musical nod to his favourite Mountain Goats track, Dilaudid. But the record’s most overt pop moment is the falsetto filled I Lost My Innocence – a tale that finds Ezra in reflective mood, looking back over his childhood days –‘I could see my future in his leather jacket. Shining in the darkness of my schoolboy past – I lost my innocence to a boy named Vincent’ – tackling the first time he felt impulsive, lustful, homosexual desires.
This is a theme discussed most overtly over the electro blips and fuzzes of Compulsive Liar where, again, he explores deep within himself to expose – ‘I’ve got one fatal flaw: I’m a compulsive liar. And I can trace the habit to when I was eleven / And I thought boys were pretty and I couldn’t tell no one.’ But the metaphorical closet is open, and he encourages the listener to be true to themselves, in whatever way is applicable to their lives- ‘The longer you stay in there, the more you’ll get distorted / the more contorted all your lies will have to be. Don’t wait a moment longer: stand up and turn the doorknob, and I’ll tell you my secret if you will tell me yours.’
While he describes the record as ‘a combination of fiction and a half-true memoir,’ you can’t help but feel it’s more autobiographical than not. This is a deeply personal work, where he demonstrates that he is proud to be an outlaw, if the concept of being true to yourself makes you that. ‘To them we’ll always be freaks,’ he howls on Suck the Blood From My Wound. But let’s hope he doesn’t change, because this ‘freak’ has just made the best record of his career, covering issues we can all relate to, while remaining stoically true to himself.