Ezra Furman & the Harpoons: “Inside the Human Body”
If Ezra Furman were really as much like Bob Dylan as he’s sometimes made out to be, then his second album, Inside the Human Body, would, hypothetically, be met with more than its fair share of derision and scorn. After all, on his debut, 2007’s Banging Down the Doors, Furman proved to be a folksinger of uncommon poise and boundless imagination, turning in a winding set of finger-picked and quickly-strummed tunes that freewheeled between confessional lyricism, absurdist whimsy, straight romanticism, and spiritual inquiry. It was an album filled with words, and those words packed a mighty whallop. But now, Furman’s thrown a bit of a curveball– he’s gone electric. And we all remember how well that went over when a certain Mr. Zimmerman tried it out way back in the mid-60s.
But of course, Furman isn’t Bob Dylan, despite what his pitchless yelp and nasally crooning might suggest, and, despite reading like a similar career trajectory on paper, Inside the Human Body is not his Bringing it All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited. And the reason for that is simple: While Dylan was essentially creating a whole new world when he plugged in, Furman has simply made another very good album– and one that, despite its differences, sounds an awful lot like his debut, come to think of it. Because while Furman and his Harpoons have beefed up their arrangements ever so slightly, focusing a bit more on the electric guitar and a full-band sound, it’s basically the same folk-punk sound they employed on their debut, clear-eyed singer-songwriter fare married to breakneck rhythms and frenetic guitar strumming.
In fact, while Dylan’s mid-60s reinvention found him expanding his (and everyone else’s) musical world to an infinite degree, Inside the Human Body actually finds the world of Ezra Furman growing a bit smaller. His debut album was bursting at the seems with awkward energy and unfettered imagination, and if this album is still a wild ride and an incredible display of passion and wit, it’s also a little bit more focused and restrained. Even though the band bangs out some of their fiercest, hardest-hitting songs yet, like swaggering opener “We Should Fight” and the punkish “Big Deal,” some of the raggedness of Banging Down the Doors has been honed and refined into an album that’s much shorter and leaner.
But that’s not such a bad thing– after all, everyone has to grow up some time, and Furman proves that he can do it without losing his loopy lyrical sensibilities, his goofball humor, and his manic energy. Because while it’s a little cleaner and more concise than the last album, it’s still rife with weirdness and creativity, and, if anything, Furman shows that he’s able to focus his songwriting in meaningful ways; if the last album proved to be so fantastic because of the way it zigzagged from one tangent and detour to the next, this one’s potent in its precision and craft, in its sense of purpose.
As the title suggests, this one’s all about the messy stuff of humanity, though it isn’t the anatomy that its name implies. Throughout the album, Furman does for mankind what “God is a Middle-Aged Woman” did on Banging Down the Doors, exploring all the beauty and foolishness of the human experience through a mix of surrealist metaphors, sly storytelling, and surprisingly straightforward confessions. “I’m not a monster, I’m a human being!” squeals our narrator in the opening song, and it serves as a sort of rallying cry for the whole album, a declaration that there’s beauty to be found in humanity despite its foolishness and its frailty. “And I’m the greatest thing you’ve ever seen!” he finishes, and then lays out a compelling case. These songs offer portraits of relationships in trouble, of people screwing things up and then trying to pull it all together again. But of course it’s not nearly as straightforward as it sounds– Furman yelps his way through these songs with his usual blend of humor and compassion, celebrating human creativity and sending up rock star arrogance in the same couplet, delivering a fully-formed picture of humanity as a complex and bewildering thing of beauty.
He and his Harpoons bang down the doors once again on the rockers, and stretch out for the aching slow numbers, which make up about half the album. The album is over in a hurry, which is mostly a blessing; it doesn’t encompass as many big ideas as the last one, but it does feel more consistent and purposeful, and, rather than lingering a bit too long, it leaves the listener wishing for a bit more, which is never really a bad thing. And though it’s a wonderful and rewarding album for the picture it paints of humanity, it’s most notable for the picture it paints of Ezra Furman as a fiercely creative, iconoclastic musician who plays by his own set of rules– a folkie, a rocker, an incredible mess of a man who, fresh out of college, is quickly establishing himself as one of the most fully-formed talents to emerge in recent memory.