Ezra Furman Harnesses the Power of Political Punk on Twelve Nudes

Music Features Ezra Furman
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Ezra Furman Harnesses the Power of Political Punk on <i>Twelve Nudes</i>

Backed by a number of bands over the past decade—first The Harpoons, next The Boy-Friends and then The Visions—Ezra Furman has remained fiery. The Chicago-born, now Boston-based rock ‘n’ roller has confronted his demons on past records, but never with as much vengeance as on his latest solo album Twelve Nudes (out now via Bella Union). He’s an experienced channeler of seething folk-punk, amped-up garage rock and classic glam, but Furman’s never screamed quite like this before, marking his first whole-hearted venture into punk.

“I always felt like I had a punk album waiting to be made,” Furman tells Paste. “I guess I just used to not go that direction because I was like, ‘Well, there’s a million punk bands. What do I have to offer? How could I add something and not just do a Henry Rollins impersonation or something?’ I always wanted to do something outside of a clear genre, and I kinda knew if I made something that I’m not sure what to call the genre, then I felt more confident that it was something original. Maybe it was partly that I have more confidence now that I have something to add, that I have the ability to not just make a Sex Pistols karaoke record or something. Or maybe it was just like, ‘Fuck it. I have to scream. I have to scream into a microphone this year.’”

Furman doesn’t hold anything back on Twelve Nudes, unleashing piercing howls right from the opening track “Calm Down aka I Should Not Be Alone.” Furman yells with anxiety-ridden restlessness: “Panic-stricken sweating in my bed / Can’t slow my heartbeat down so I thrash around instead.” But Furman isn’t just screaming indiscriminately into the void—he has clear targets for the anger behind his throaty roars, and his breakneck vocal delivery is justified by the urgency of our political climate.

He goes after “bad men” who “crush us into submission,” the inequality baked into capitalism (“The one who works hardest gets the smallest reward / The big scam is nobody gives a damn”), the idolization of America’s founding fathers (“I don’t give a shit what Ben Franklin intended / What slaveowner men said—glad they’re all dead”) and the facade of American exceptionalism (“How you’re not even dead yet when they bury ya”). Furman wrote this record during the turmoil of last summer, when Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegations were horrifyingly brushed aside and the Trump administration enacted their dehumanizing family separation policy. Furman found strength in identifying and reflecting on the roots of his anger, rather than kicking them under the bed and hoping they wouldn’t multiply.

“It’s been a process of realizing that I feel better when I pay attention to the things that scare the hell out of me,” Furman says. “I was so afraid to think about some of the worst things, like the legitimization of white supremacy. To admit that I am in a state of near despair about certain facts of human civilization right now, actually makes me feel more powerful in a way, oddly.”

Furman’s last album—2018’s Transangelic Exodus—had a vigor as well, but it was grounded by Furman’s cinematic vision. He described it as “a queer outlaw saga,” and it featured a lot of overdubbing and some added bells and whistles. Twelve Nudes was recorded in just two sessions across two weeks, but nothing feels hastily thrown together thanks to Furman’s reliably catchy songwriting. Furman felt renewed by a return to raw rock ‘n’ roll with more emphasis on primal instincts than preconceived artistic concepts.

“[My last two albums] might represent two impulses: the impulse to fiction that you hear on Transangelic Exodus and the impulse to favor direct self-expression, which you hear on Twelve Nudes,” Furman says. “We spent a lot of time making Transangelic Exodus and toward the end of it, my ability and my love for music—that is, just garage music, direct and immediate—started to feel neglected. And I started listening to lots of punk rock, right when we finished making Transangelic Exodus. Perhaps on Transangelic Exodus, I was starting to worry that the fear and the anger were obscured by the craft and the production and the details. So it felt like if you didn’t get the point, ‘Here’s the point, but more intense.’”

Though Twelve Nudes is rooted in punk, it’s far from monolithic. “Calm Down aka I Should Not Be Alone” features ascendent, ringing guitar melodies and bright backing vocal hoots, the perfect pop counterweights to Furman’s gravelly punk yelps. The moshpit really opens up on “Rated R Crusaders” with its serrated guitar screeches, sugar rush vocals and background panting. “Transition From Nowhere to Nowhere” and “In America” both tap into classic rock, with the former touching on his struggles with gender fluidity and the latter filled with hearty, sobering Bruce Springsteen-isms. The most glaring outlier is “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend” where Furman detours into doo-wop before the following track “Blown” swaps candy-coated melodies for thick guitar and vocal sludge.

Furman cites the late punk rocker Jay Reatard as an inspiration for this shift towards punk and open display of his fears. Reatard specialized in dark lyricism (On “Death is Forming,” he spouts, “Death is calling / Get in line” while on “It Ain’t Gonna Save Me,” he sings, “My negativity it takes a toll / It eats at me just like a bone”), always using his songwriting as a space to unchain his heavy thoughts.

“I wrote this song called ‘My Teeth Hurt’ and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna write this kind of music for a while now,’” Furman says. “It was from listening to lots of punk and Jay Reatard, feeling so satisfied by how negative Jay Reatard was willing to be, how stark about the pain he was in. I’m just grateful to people who are willing to admit how bad things feel for them. Over a long period of time, I was experiencing increasing tooth pain, and I did not have dental insurance. And I was like, ‘Well, I guess it’s not so bad. It’ll be fine. I can live with it.’ It was getting more and more intense, and clearly pointing toward a crisis. And then current events, just sort of seeing it the same way, pointing toward catastrophe and suddenly, I was writing songs that were all about that same thing pretty much. The pain, the damage that builds up that you’re trying to ignore, that eventually has to be dealt with because it’s leading to catastrophe.”

Furman didn’t feel like his album was complete until he recorded “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend.” It may be musically rooted in 1950s pop, but a musician would have had major trouble convincing a record label to release a song with these sentiments back then. It describes Furman’s struggle to navigate queer relationships and subvert heteronormative expectations: “Honey I know that I don’t have the body you’d want in a girlfriend / What I’m working with is less than ideal”.

“We didn’t record that song at first,” Furman says. “I didn’t think it was part of the record because I was like, ‘We gotta focus. We gotta make this true punk album from top to bottom.’ I just know that it being on there changes the whole thing. It’s the song that shows me as a queer person in conversation with a potentially hostile culture. It’s not only a song of romantic yearning, but it’s a song of yearning to be allowed to exist, to be taken seriously and seen as real. When we reconvened to finish recording, I brought that one in and I was like, ‘We need this one.’ It puts the rest of it all in proper context, which is like a queer against the world, basically.”

The last song in the tracklist is “What Can You Do But Rock n Roll,” but Twelve Nudes isn’t a defeatist surrender—it magnifies the country’s quandaries and opts for catharsis through rage. The best thing you can do when you feel powerless is to try to regain that power, and Furman attempts to retake the ship and respond to society’s flashing sirens through finger-pointing, clamoring guitars and guttural howling.

“[Transangelic Exodus and Twelve Nudes] feel like some kind of response to a number of emergencies that our society is in the grip of,” Furman says. “If you do a careful and slow response to an emergency, there might be merit to that approach, but then the emergency is still there and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I just have to act faster.’ You have to put less and less window dressing on the truth of the matter.”

Twelve Nudes is out now via Bella Union. Watch Furman’s 2018 Paste Studio session below.

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