“This is our punk record.”
These words, no doubt stated forcefully with a mischievously raised eyebrow, amount to a gauntlet thrown down towards the listeners of Ezra Furman’s new record, Twelve Nudes. But they are also a challenge, a blatant lie, a misdirection. It is a punk record, but this is nothing new: all of his previous records, with his various backing bands, have been ‘punk’ in sound or attitude, none more so than his most recent LP, Transangelic Exodus: a near-perfect rock opera about falling in love with angels and being on the run from the law. Imagine Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire crossed with David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, soundtracked by Lou Reed with help from Bruce Springsteen. That’s about as punk as it gets, folks.
Twelve Nudes is the confusingly named (there are only eleven songs, not counting the ‘bonus track’) ninth album by Ezra Furman. Furman is a queer, gender-fluid, Jewish poet, essayist and iconoclast. He is a wearer of pearls and lipstick, fiercely dedicated to observation of Jewish customs (he won’t play on Saturdays) and rock ‘n’ roll. In the world of punk, he is one of the honest few that carries a torch for the outsiders, the losers, the people who don’t quite fit in. He openly discusses gender identity, queer politics and his religion so openly and with such freedom that it’s impossible to dislike him. He is an open book.
Since his last album, he’s written a (frankly incredible) book on Lou Reed’s Transformer for the 33 1/3 series, and soundtracked the Netflix show Sex Education – it's not as though he’s been resting on his laurels, or bathing in the critical acclaim he’s been afforded his whole career. He’s been working, and you can tell: Twelve Nudes is loaded, full to bursting with ideas for each of its thirty minutes.
The album opens with “Calm Down aka I Should Not Be Alone”, which sets an unmistakeable tone for the record. Furman pilfers the Stones’ “ooh-ooh”s from “Sympathy for the Devil”, and drapes them over an aggressive, riotous two minutes of fiery punk. “’Calm Down’ is so desperate, and not what I want to say about the world,” wrote Furman about the violence found within the song. He continued: “I think we curate our reactions to current news because we’re overwhelmed by how bad it is, and I noticed I was suppressing how bad I truly felt. I wanted music that gave me permission to feel how it felt to live in a broken world, which punk rock does.”
Across the album, there moments of fury tempered by moments of beauty. “Evening Prayer aka Justice”, which follows, tones it down a little, but Furman’s vocals remain just as shredded, his throat a cauldron of bubbling anger. “Transition from Nowhere to Nowhere” allows Furman to slip into his comfortable sickly-sweet '60s pop clothes; it could be on the soundtrack to John Waters’ Cry-Baby.
Then you have “Rated R Crusaders”, which channels the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag, with unusually political lyrics about burning cities and Jerusalem falling. “In America” is two minutes of unabashed, glorious Replacements/Dinosaur Jr. worship, and it has the simile of the year buried within it (“Clean me out like an enema”). It’s more Don’t Tell A Soul than You’re Living All Over Me, which is to say that its beauty is closer to the surface than one might expect. It’s not rough or ragged punk, but worn and well-used pop. “My Teeth Hurt” goes the opposite way. It’s a college-rocker informed by the SST catalogue, especially J Mascis’ Neil Young-ian guitar fireworks.
“Trauma” is the doomiest thing Furman’s ever done – the riff alone weighs a tonne. “Thermometer” seems to be channeling the ghost of Jay Reatard in its sincere and simple aggression. Reatard has been mentioned throughout the album cycle as one of Furman’s influences, and his spirit lives in every explosive chord, every piercing guitar lead.
The centrepiece of the album, “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend”, is probably the best thing Furman’s ever written. It contains all of the things he does better than anyone, from the prom night romanticism to the Lou Reed schlock. The narrator (here also called Ezra) wonders whether he would please his crush by calling himself Esme. He bemoans his friends’ disparate ideas of maturity, from dying religious zealots to empirical-minded atheists, while wondering aloud how he can negotiate the problems caused by a less-than-desirable physiognomy. His answer? Blowjobs. Every night after work. It’s peak Ezra Furman, in the same way that “Walk on the Wild Side” is peak Lou Reed, or “Bad Blood” is peak Taylor Swift. Just the artist, contained in a song, like a fossil in amber.
Of course, it’s not perfect, by any stretch. On an aesthetic level, the album cover is hideous, which ruins the streak of beautiful sleeves Furman’s put on his records since 2013’s Day of the Dog (which is still, and will remain, the favourite album of Furman connoisseurs).
The biggest problem with the album is, unfortunately, one of the most important considerations: the mixing. The ear-shredding mix, from super-producer John Congleton, is immensely draining. It’s almost as though they used the migraine-inducing Iggy Pop mix of Raw Power as a guide, pushing every single riff and vocal scream into your skull like cranial drills. Music this loud can quickly become tiresome or, less desirably, boring (see also: Metallica’s St. Anger; any recent Flaming Lips album). Twelve Nudes is, mercifully, strong enough to avoid these pitfalls.
Despite that, these are good songs, played with enough grit and raw humanity to make you return to them. The lyrics, as biting and as forthright as ever, are sung with all of Furman’s heart and soul. This isn’t Furman’s best album, but it might be his most heartfelt, his most intense, his most candid – and that’s more than enough for now.