The Lowdown: It’s been a pleasant surprise how much the mighty, blocky anthems of Bruce Springsteen have influenced trans and non-binary singer-songwriters, from the outspoken Laura Jane Grace to former G.L.O.S.S. powerhouse and current Dyke Drama troubadour Sadie Switchblade and the increasingly boisterous Ezra Furman. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, though; Springsteen’s always been attentive to politics, goodhearted, and most artistically important, totally awash in yearning passion that matches the intensity of the above-named rockers. Less surprising is how much they all identify with The Replacements’ timeless outsider shout-alongs.
Last year, Furman may have released his best song yet in the highly E Street-indebted escape saga “Suck the Blood from My Wound”, the opening salvo of Transangelic Exodus, a sort of rock opera in which the narrator flees the authorities with a literally angelic lover. His fourth album subsequently ramps up the rock (Furman’s tagged it his punk record), and it’s distorted as fuck. “I hurt my voice screaming,” he told Billboard as well as: “We made the loud parts louder.” Since Furman’s past catalog isn’t exactly mellow (hi, 2013’s “I Wanna Destroy Myself”!), you can only imagine that Twelve Nudes is one of 2019’s most nail-biting rushes.
The Good: Furman counts the late Memphis garage great Jay Reatard as one of the spiritual heroes of this record, and the instantly gratifying “Thermometer” is as sugary and high-speed as a Reatard homage deserves to be. The speaker-blowing guitars all over this record and John Congleton’s shaky, volatile mix finally give Furman the surroundings to match his demanding presence, with slamming, hooky rewards in barnburners like “My Teeth Hurt” (“When pleasure lets you down you learn to lean into the pain”) and the closing firestorm, “What Can You Do but Rock n Roll”. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the swaying, lovely “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend” grapples with Furman’s gender identity, openly wondering about renaming himself Esme and whether the changes could make for even better romance. They’re some of Furman’s best tunes ever.
The Bad: Congleton’s distortion is of the hyper-compressed digital sort, an effect underrated by old punks in its screeching aural impact but a bit muffling when it comes to lyrics that are belted out like they’re very important. Titles like “Rated R Crusaders” and “Trauma” will grab you for sure, but at times it feels like you’re being assaulted by someone singing in another language because the lyrics are so smudged. When you can fish out a phrase like “polarizing binary is not really my scene,” it would be nice to be able to decipher the rest, too. Sometimes the tunes themselves aren’t even legible, as with the 56-second “Blown”, which is likely that way by design. It’s also possible that these melodies just aren’t as strong as the ones you can catch.
The Verdict: Twelve Nudes makes all the moves some of us have wanted from Furman: faster, brisker music, clearer politics, bigger riffs, and impossible-to-ignore shouting. It feels a couple highlights short of a punk classic, but it’s the follow-up that last year’s excellent Transangelic Exodus probably deserves, a chaotic nuclear submarine of guitar that demands our attention even in its messiness. The transformation from a winning singer-songwriter into a bona fide rock hero is one we need, and all the better from someone fighting for their gender and sexual identity’s long-withheld right to be front and center.
Essential Tracks: “Thermometer”, “My Teeth Hurt”, and “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend”