Ezra Furman – Transangelic Exodus (Bella Union)

I really tried getting used to Transangelic Exodus, and growing comfortable with it, but this is not an album you can listen to without finding yourself perturbed. Don’t get me wrong, it has much in the way of brilliantly catchy melodies and lyrics, but no amount of enjoying them stops some of the other elements of the LP from unsettling me, even after hearing it a dozen or so times. There are moments on here which hit hard every time, and which, even once you expect them – like a good horror film scare – still manage to freak you out when they happen. Luckily, just as with an excellent horror film, the occasional discomfort experienced doesn’t stop you from wanting to return to something which has an awful lot of artistic merit.

The album sounds like what once was a carefree indie rock record that’s been irrevocably corrupted by its surroundings. Road trip songs, such as ‘Driving Down to L.A.’, end up feeling like desperate attempts to escape an all-knowing oppressive force. A sharp-edged DEVO-like tune, ‘Maraschino Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill’, is about a moment of self-discovery but takes on an unnerving paranoid intensity, channelled through a processed guitar solo that abruptly fades. Songs of religious meditation, chief among them “God Lifts Up the Lowly”, focus not so much on positive spirituality as on a dark use of sacred texts and faith, with the pace of a dirge.

Transangelic Exodus feels cursed, writhing, infected with the torment of one’s identity constituting a threat to one’s own existence. Album opener ‘Suck the Blood from My Wound’ ends with a blood-curdling, repeated scream of “a plague on both your houses!” – quoting Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. It is brilliantly chosen, cursing the warring factions (politicians of all stripes) that use Furman’s identity – whether it be as someone pansexual, genderqueer, or Jewish – as a political talking point, and as a result drag him into a fight he has no desire to be involved in. There are further parallels between the album and Shakespeare’s play, too: forbidden love, running from the law and innocence caught in the crossfire all feature prominently. Perhaps most importantly, both play out from the perspective of the underdog, caught in a dysfunctionally violent environment criminalising that which is essential to them. Both thus have a bewildering sense of dread and powerlessness to them, and a fidgeting need to run, and that’s where both the play and the album get their beating pulse from.

The album also sees Furman exploring religion, namely Judaism, far more deeply than we’ve seen before. Religion may be a common theme in music, but his take on it is far from being prosaic. Ezra, who doesn’t play concerts on Friday nights in order to observe sabbath, is quite deeply religious, and so approaches the topic in a way that is accordingly knowledgeable and personal. Just take the following flow of wordplay, which I delight in hearing every time it comes up in “No Place”:

I need a pile of rubble
To call my domicile
Far from the violent rabble, and could I
Trouble you to come along
And listen to me babble
How long will we babble on in exile?
Babble on in exile

This chain of word associations is incredibly crafted, becoming increasingly repetitive and loose form as it comes to reference babbling and, by way of homophony, the tower of Babel and Babylon, bringing biblical tales of social fracture and religious oppression to bear on Transangelic Exodus’ supernatural 21st Century tale.

As rotten as the world might be, the album sees Furman start to accept it as such, and thus begin to escape the forward crawl of its oppression behind. As he screams “to them you know we’ll always be freaks” on the album opener, he might be highlighting the bigotry of others, but he is also recognising it as a constant, as something for him not to change but rather leave behind. The irony is that he may well change some minds with this album: the allegorical story of someone with transangelicism – someone who is, in fact, an angel, and needs an operation in order to present as such rather than as human – is presented in such a visceral way as to avoid the frequent bigoted and ignorant knee-jerk reactions to gender dysphoria. Throughout the album we are made intensely aware of the struggles of its characters, and at no point is it felt relevant to question their identities. This, combined with the fact that the music is fucking great, means that a transangelic tale may well reach a few skeptical ears and foster an acceptance of people with other conditions that are real and valid.

Furman closes the album offering a whimsical and upbeat take on an early sexual encounter with the flippantly named “I Lost My Innocence”. Considering how “in a single incident I was changed”, he sets the scene as suitably adolescent with the juxtaposition of a “Box of Girl Scout Thin Mints / And a pack of Winstons”. As he goes on to exclaim that “I’m a queer for life”, he affirms the permanence of his queer identity, establishing it as a given irrespective of what the world might think. The earlier howls that he and his lover will always be freaks to the outside world have taken on a more positive tone, the pain of it has been set aside and the bigots in question have been forgotten. The background of hatred and oppression fades away, leaving attention on just a single bedroom, at a particular moment in Ezra’s life. And as the impressionistic description of this moment draws to a close, the final line of the album happily sings:

“In a single instant I was set free.”

-- Max Bastow, February 28, 2018