On his latest album, “Transangelic Exodus” (Bella Union), Ezra Furman decided to go for broke. He crafted what he calls a “queer outlaw saga” — a series of vignettes that addresses police-state oppression of minorities framed by sprawling orchestral- and electro-rock arrangements. Yes, that’s a whole lot of ambition packed into 13 songs.
It’s also the most liberating album in a career that stretches back a decade, when Furman emerged out of north suburban Evanston with a band that played earnest, high-intensity guitar rock steeped in the music of an earlier era, from the Velvet Underground to the Violent Femmes. But as he became more public about who he was as a person — he identifies as a “feminine-representing bisexual male” — his music grew bolder.
“I was in a band that was writing love letters to 20th century music,” he says. “We’d done it well, but we’d peaked, and I wasn’t sure where to take it. We were making music styled after bands who recorded on four tracks, but we’re recording on computers with limitless capabilities. It seemed silly not to use that technology to expand, especially when you’re listening to (Kendrick Lamar’s) ‘To Pimp a Butterfly,’ the Weeknd, Beck.”
That mindset was forged over years of struggling to find an audience that matched the critical acclaim his albums would routinely bring. “I won’t be confined to total obscurity,” Furman says. “I feel like we have a more significant role to play. I wanted to throw my hat in the ring with the great minds of 21st century music. I wanted to be part of that conversation.”
The members of Furman’s latest band, the Visions (formerly the Boy-Friends), have been willing accomplices, and the songs have expanded beyond the guitar-bass-drums format to incorporate electronic textures as well as cello, saxophone and keyboards. It led to the broader reception accorded his 2015 album, “Perpetual Motion People,” and “Transangelic Exodus” ups the ante.
“I started out writing a record about coming out of the closet, issues of having a public identity, a clear identity, and then something else arrived,” he says, describing the first part of the song that would open the album, “Suck the Blood from my Wound.” “It was like having a dream. It implied this whole world to play in. I tried to ignore it at first — ‘I’m not trying to write a rock opera, am I?’ ‘Where is this coming from?’ But it ended up tying in with the stuff I’d been writing about, the fear and solidarity that vulnerable people are having. It became about a marginalized person, someone who feels threatened.”
In today’s America, “someone who feels threatened” could describe a lot of citizens — women, immigrants, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, schoolchildren. “And we have people in the highest office legitimizing that,” Furman says. “It’s terrifying and it’s disappointing. It’s for sure a reason that I would suddenly be visited with this idea of writing songs about fleeing some kind of authoritarian regime with a stigmatized body. It showed up in my subconscious, but it was because it was in the air in 2016. It’s part of American life right now. Everybody has to deal with fear, and how vulnerable people are feeling. Somehow it’s a debate whether those fears are legitimate. I find myself asking on the album and in my own life, how frightened is it reasonable to be? Am I being overly paranoid or not paranoid enough?”
The loose concept of oppression and resilience that ties together the songs on “Transangelic Exodus” is rooted in Furman’s family history. He grew up in a Jewish household, and his grandparents were immigrants who escaped the Holocaust. “I grew up wondering could that happen here? What would it look like? Would I be prepared to leave my home in the middle of the night if necessary, or if some part of the population was being systematically threatened, could I stand up for them? Those nightmares have been aggravated by the rise of the people in power right now. It’s a fearful, paranoid record, but I hope in the end it has to do with solidarity — threatened people finding solidarity in each other.”
The story line could also be read as an elaborate metaphor for Furman’s life. “It was a messy and fearful process,” he says about coming to terms with the truth of who he was as a person. “There’s a part of me that’s skeptical of the narrative of coming out. I took a none-of-your-business attitude for a long time. At some point it started to corrode within me that I was hiding myself to make other people feel more comfortable.”
Yet the decision, while liberating, was also not without heartache. “I feel myself judged by strangers walking down the street, a lot, and sometimes it makes me fearful, because they look like they might get violent,” he says. “But for me, it is still worth it.”
Coming out has made him a less afraid as an artist, as well. The boldness of his new album is no accident. “I have noticed in the years since I’ve been more out of the closet, it has gone with a lot more artistic confidence,” he says. “You get some of the trash of insecurity out of the way and you get down to writing about what really matters.”
When told that it appeared he always wrote about what mattered to him, he retraces his steps. “I guess that’s right, but I have the syndrome of being most excited about my most recent record, and dismissing my older records,” he says. “It’s not really fair to my old records, but I’m addicted to moving on.”
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