Furman’s latest release “Transangelic Exodus” is a concept album centering around illegal angels and an outlaw narrator.
Ezra Furman’s newest solo album, “Transangelic Exodus,” centers around a “queer outlaw saga.” It’s a sort of concept album about escaping the government on a road trip with an angel, but it’s also a mediation on otherness in the modern world. Equally, it’s about trusting God to help the weary. Regardless of the exact perspective you see it through, the album is successful in what it sets out to do: communicating this story of angels and outlaws through a really solid pop-rock album.
Ezra Furman first cropped up in the music industry in with 2007’s “Banging Down the Doors,” a punk-minded indie rock album that toys with the complexities of religion and feelings of teenage inadequacy. It’s nothing too out of the ordinary for its genre, in all honesty. What saves the album from the mire of teenage self-loathing is Furman’s crackling tenor and lyrical imagination.
“God Is A Middle-Aged Woman,” off this early album, typifies Furman’s artistic sensibilities. With its production rough around the edges and descending into something akin to wailing at its end, the song recounts a God who’s “really shy” and “thinking about remarriage / To a guy she recently met / And hasn’t even asked out on a date yet.” In a serious role reversal, Furman reassures God that “things are gonna be fine” and wonders how he had never noticed how beautiful the world is. Furman creates wonder and relief from his own constructed tragedies, reminding his audience that the world has some natural order, hidden though it may be. The harmonica is also pretty good in this track.
His choice to cast God as a middle-aged divorcée isn’t too surprising. Ezra Furman has been toying with marginal identities in relation to society at large since the beginning of his career and continues to do so. Furman’s own voice as a gender-nonconforming, non-heterosexual, Jewish artist seemingly informs his subject matter to a great extent. This allegiance to the underdog is nowhere clearer in Furman’s discography than in “Transangelic Exodus,” in which each track roots back to motifs of marginalization and solidarity.
The opening track of the album, “Suck the Blood from My Wound,” effectively kicks off the album in a in media res car crash. Starting off with some crunchy, industrial synths, the song details our narrator “waiting for [his] deus ex machina” and finding that savior figure in an angel “climbing out the hospital window / Leaving tubes in a tangle.” Though not directly explained in the album itself, Furman states in an interview with NME that being an angel “is thought to be a disease, or some sort of threat to the integrity of the human race” within the loose story of the album. Furman further explains that “I’m in love with an angel, and a government is after us, and we have to leave home because angels are illegal.” As our narrator and his angel make their escape from the hospital, we are treated to the hook of this track: “Angel, don’t fight it / To them you know we’ll always be freaks.”
In some sense, these lyrics acts as the central thesis of the album. There is no regret or sadness in the tone Furman’s delivery. It sounds instead like a declaration of truth, as if recognizing that the narrator and his angel will only be viewed by others as “freaks” liberates them from needing to dissemble in order to survive. This theme is further cemented in the single off the album, “Driving Down to L.A.,” in which our narrator sings over a reverberating synth bass that he’s “built a home inside [angel’s] eyes / and [he’s] not leaving.” There’s this sense of sonic immenseness in the track, especially in its latter half, from the layered industrial drums, booming synth bass and Furman’s vocal delivery. The song’s immenseness also stems from the idea that Furman seems to be circling around: maybe it is no real necessity to be accepted by society at large.
Furman instead loops the idea of acceptance back into religion. “God Lifts Up the Lowly” is a slower, more meditative track on the album, heavily featuring the cello and piano. Being the third track of the album, it slows down the momentum of the album a bit and gives the narrator some time to lament. The story of our narrator and angel develops as they’re “driving in a car that won’t slow down” and praying “for plagues to come down on this Egypt.” With the slower pace of the song coupled with Furman’s flat delivery of downtrodden lyrics, the track borders on being a dirge. The melancholy tone subsides as the song progresses and the titular hook comes into play; “I know that God lifts up the lowly” confesses the narrator, giving the sense that the underdogs of this albums are divinely justified. The final verse of the track is a reverberating, chanted Hebrew prayer, re-emphasizing that God lifts up the lowly and redeems the needy.
The quality of production on this album is a significant change from Furman’s earlier works. The production on “Transangelic Exodus” seems to be a bit cleaner than on his previous records, even with the industrial elements layered in. The sonic landscape is richer than your everyday guitar, bass and drums. Furman includes horns, xylophones and cellos in a good number of the tracks. And though there unfortunately isn’t as much harmonica as his early work, the tempos and riffs in use are a lot more varied and engaging than the ‘60s proto-punk rock that Furman had been emulating.
The genre that this album falls into is a bit hard to pin down. Generally, it’s a pop-rock album, but to that seems reductive of the variety of sound and mood throughout the album. The rushed, bombastic drums and fraught vocals of “No Place” seem incongruous to the baroque pop vocals and lyrical structure of “I Lost My Innocence.”
The genre shifts in some sense mirror the shift in tone as our narrator comes to terms with his otherness represented by the allegory of falling in love with an angel.
There are ups and downs in a journey to self-acceptance, and so there are ups and downs in the record. The middle of the album is particularly slow and self-critical; the production becomes a bit rawer around the edges and the instrumentation more bare as Furman’s lyrics become increasingly doubtful. “Come Here Get Away from Me” bottoms out the album with a Lou Reed-esque guitar riff backing our narrator recounting his regrets and difficulties with intimacy. Furman delivers the lyrics as if it were a monologue, at one point even accusing the audience of prying with the line, “So you say you wanna get to know me?”
Following this emotional low by just three songs is the last track of the album, “I Lost My Innocence.” The song is a tight pop track that wouldn’t sound too out of place in the discography of the Beach Boys. Mirroring his self-acceptance in the hook of the first song, Furman sings that he found “a kingdom of love, outside the / Reigning order / And I found my angel on a motorcycle / I’m a queer for life / Outlaw, outsider.”
Though the album may occasionally get lost in self-doubt, it begins and ends strongly with self-love and solidarity with outsiders. And honestly, it’s a refreshing narrative in 2018. Furman’s world of angels and outlaws isn’t idyllic, but it at least promises hope.