“I am shattered, I am bleeding, but goddammit I’m alive,” announces Ezra Furman towards the end of his latest album, Transangelic Exodus - an epic drama over 13 tracks that sees Furman, his band, and his lover disconnecting their phones, crossing state lines and trying to survive in a recognisably dystopian America.
Resilience and strength in the face of mounting societal odds have always been a theme of Furman’s records, but here they are explored with closer focus and greater narrative depth than ever before.
Transangelic Exodus is the first Ezra Furman record to encompass an overarching narrative - it’s the story of a man and his lover, a (literal) angel, on the run from a government which outlaws their very existence. Furman lends his considerable storytelling skills to each song, and the album is rich with imagery, especially relating to its angelic protagonist: from the fantastical (“My angel’s got eyes like a housing project / He was born inside a guitar”) to the oddly banal (“Your loose feathers fill up two shopping bags”). The record is an explicit reaction to current authoritarian leadership and the spread of neo-Nazism, but Furman emphasises the ongoing nature of the struggle of marginalised people that are under threat - in “Come Here Get Away From Me” he sings, “All my life I’ve been jumping rock to rock / All my life I’ve been building this fortress on the edge of your town,” hidden in plain sight, on the run since time began.
It may be formalised as a concept album, but the cultural predecessors of Transangelic Exodus are a muddle of idiosyncratic stories about exile, love, and the quest for self-determination across music, film and literature: From the cold war paranoia and off-grid living of Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime”, to the queer outsider camaraderie of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and Tony Kushner’s symbolic examination of AIDS, Angels in America. Perhaps its closest forebear is Canadian writer Anne Carson’s Red Doc>, an epic verse-poem chronicling an eternal road trip of star-crossed outsiders, beaten down by contemporary society. Its characters are drawn from Greek myth and headed by Geryon, a gay angel forced to hide his wings from sight. It’s no coincidence that - like Furman and his angel - many of the authors and/or protagonists of these stories are queer: a group that has historically sought solace (or been forced to exist) in the fringes, from the days of criminalised homosexuality to today’s near-constant media attack on trans people.
Furman’s queerness is integral here - he has made it clear that it’s no accident that ‘trans’ is embedded in the album’s title - but so is his Jewish faith, which is more front-and-centre than it has been in the past. His faith frequently intersects with expressions of queerness: in “Maraschino Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill”, surrounded by anxious guitar bursts, Furman has a crisis of confidence buying the titular garment, and worries that his stalling will result in him missing synagogue. The nexus of Furman’s faith, sexuality and gender identity feels more central than ever to his songwriting, and underpins the album’s themes of oppression and exile.
Transangelic Exodus is more musically varied than Furman’s previous albums, due in part to a new approach to recording. This saw Furman recording demos of songs with separate individual members of his band The Visions, and sometimes incorporating elements of these recordings into the finished product. This experimental approach is evident on lead single “Driving Down to LA”, where dark, lo-fi synth sounds are introduced to the mix, and on “The Great Unknown”, a chant-like melody set to a initially sparse arrangement of drums and (shouted) voice that builds and grows in confidence as Furman reassures his lover that, “a human is something that rises and falls over time, dear”.
The all-out anthemic rock ‘n’ roll that was honed on 2015’s Perpetual Motion People is still present, but in an expanded form: “No Place” is a typically driving call to arms, embellished with drums and trumpet that lend it an almost wild west feel, appropriate for its themes of escape. It’s on these tracks that Furman’s talent for chipping away nihilism to reveal euphoria shines through - placing him in a grand lineage incorporating more obvious touchstones like Bruce Springsteen, as well as specifically queer chroniclers of the relationship between anger and strength such as Against Me!.
The songs that work best as standalone statements outside of the album’s narrative still have themes of resilience. “Compulsive Liar” deals with survival tactics that could be seen as morally dubious – in this case lying to deflect from the truth of one’s sexuality – and questions the hypocrisy of a society that judges marginalised people who go to these lengths to survive. There’s also a deliciously ironic nod to socially acceptable self-care rituals in “Peel My Orange Every Morning”, a process which Furman describes as his “beginner’s meditation”, at first syncing up with polite, pizzicato strings, before exploding into a barely-contained crash of instrumentation, his anxiety and anger over spilling and on display.
Triumphant single “Love You So Bad” operates both within the narrative and as a kind of play-within-a-play: a 3-and-a-half-minute story of a relationship from start to finish and beyond, studded with characteristically well-drawn moments that range from obtuse similes (“You know I love you so bad / Like the kid skipping class in the bathrooms”) to vivid, economic biographical details (“You moved away that was that / You still send me the occasional email / I got a dumb job working in retail”). It is equal parts jubilant and melancholy, and it positions care and desire as the heart of the whole record.
Transangelic Exodus is about the drive to run away and escape a world that doesn’t want us in it, but it’s also, maybe more importantly, about the people we want to take with us. For queer people, the very fact of our love is often the cause of our exile, and that only convinces us to hold onto the ones we love even closer. Transangelic Exodus is driven by the need to raze the institutions that want to see us dead, but it is grounded by the tightly-wound fingers that hold our hands - or more accurately, the trampled celestial wings that cocoon us - along the way.