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Transangelic Exodus, Ezra Furman’s second album for Bella Union, is a new landmark for the American singer-songwriter: “not a concept record, but almost a novel, or a cluster of stories on a theme, a combination of fiction and a half-true memoir,” according to its author. “A personal companion for a paranoid road trip. A queer outlaw saga.”
The music is as much of an intense, dramatic event, full of brilliant hooks, with an equally evolved approach to recorded sound to match Furman’s narrative vision. In honour of this shift, his backing band has been newly christened: The Boy-Friends are dead, long live The Visions. In other words, the man who embodies the title of his last album Perpetual Motion People is still on the move… Or in the vernacular of the new album, on the run.
“The narrative thread,” Furman declares, “is I’m in love with an angel, and a government is after us, and we have to leave home because angels are illegal, as is harbouring angels. The term ‘transangelic’ refers to the fact people become angels because they grow wings. The have an operation, and they’re transformed. And it causes panic because some people think it’s contagious, or it should just be outlawed.
“The album still works without the back story, though,” he vouches. “What’s essential is the mood — paranoid, authoritarian, the way certain people are stigmatised. It’s a theme in American life right now, and other so-called democracies.”
After “Perpetual Motion People” was released in July 2015, Furman had moved back from California (Oakland) to his home town of Chicago. But after a year, he returned to the west coast (Berkeley this time). “I just seem to keep moving,” he sighs. Still, Transangelic Exodus was mostly recorded – as all Furman's records have been since 2011 — at his bandmate (saxophonist/producer) Tim Sandusky’s Ballistico Studios in Chicago, and with the other Visions — Jorgen Jorgensen (bass, and on this album, cello), Ben Joseph (keyboards, guitar) and Sam Durkes (drums/percussion).
Just as Furman’s band hasn’t really changed, so his musical DNA remains intact – a thrilling, literate form of garage-punk rooted in The Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman and ‘50s rock’n’roll. But Transangelic Exodus is noticeably different to its predecessors. “2016 was a hard year,” Furman recalls. “While the political and cultural conversation devolved in a very threatening way, we travelled and toured a lot. We saw ourselves coming to the end of what we were, and we wanted to become something new.”
Furman cites Vampire Weekend’s “Modern Vampires Of The City”, Beck’s “Odelay”, Sparklehorse’s “It’s A Wonderful Life”, Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly”, Kayne West’s Yeezus, Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness and Tune-Yards’ Who Kill – “artists making the most interesting music with the available resources” – as influences on Transangelic Exodus, plus Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen and James Baldwin’s ground-breaking, gay-themed 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room.
“My previous records were original in their own way, but got classified as an off-kilter version of a retro band, and I wanted something that sounded more original,” he explains. “So we took time off touring, and made sure we took time with every song. I demoed with different band members, and