Ezra Furman and The Harpoons: “Mysterious Power”
Look, I don’t care how good Ezra Furman’s Dylan is; the dude is a punk always has been a punk, and– if we’re all lucky– always will be a punk. Everything he does with his band, The Harpoons, is imbued with a crackling, ramshackle energy and a DIY aesthetic that renders even the fine, freewheelin’ folk rock of Banging Down the Doors and the punchier, electrified Inside the Human Body sounding like the word of a garage band– a garage band that actually believes in that old “three chords and the Truth” jazz, and I love them for it.
Mysterious Power is the name of their new one, and as it turns out, this is the one I’ve been waiting for, with equal parts excitement and trepidation. This is the album where Ezra Furman grows up– at least a little– and the very notion of that is a little maddening. The man was literally just a kid when he started out; rest assured that the Dylan impression was something that, by all accounts, should have been well beyond his reach, and speaks to either a sharply-honed set of rock and roll instincts or else a bookish, obsessive study of the music, or maybe a little of both. The point is, Furman has always possessed a rare songwriting gift that filled me with trembling excitement over what he might turn into with a little further maturation; and, no small amount of fear that he would either stay a kid forever and allow his music to stagnate, or worse, grow up and allow it to become boring.
Happily, Mysterious Power doesn’t swing too far in either direction, which I reckon is due to the fact that as a singer and songwriter he’s still very youthful, and the Harpoons still sound like they’re banging away in some dank garage. Still, this is an Ezra Furman who has come a long way since the charming naivete and roughshod glories of Banging Down the Doors. The first song will blindside you. It’s an acoustic ballad called “Wild Rosemarie,” and it’s the kind of slippery romance that blurs the line between a love that’s human and a love divine to the extent that it doesn’t much matter– you’re simply dealing with the ineffable, the sublime. It’s less Dylan than Springsteen— or dare I say Van Morrison?
But he doesn’t stay in the mystic forever, returning quickly to fast-and-dirty rock that’s surprisingly well-rooted; I’m thinking in particular of “Hard Time in a Terrible Land,” a song of such ferocious Clash-like punk fervor that at first you don’t catch just what a magnificent piece of writing it is. The song taps into recession anxiety and otherwise grown up complications remarkably well, and it does so with an uncommon theological acumen. Furman’s lyric ties the whole enterprise of human suffering to the Fall of Adam and Eve, elevating what could have been topical to an altogether spiritual plane and pointing the barrel of the gun at all of us.
For these moments of maturation, though, the dude remains a punk at heart– a punk, I say!– and he is still one of the most youth-obsessed singer/songwriters of his generation, along with, say, the fellas from Arcade Fire and Art Brut. But on this album, his paeans to youth– and there are many of them– come with a newfound sense of perspective, or at least a health appreciation for his rock and roll roots. “Teenage Wasteland,” a two-minute release of childish impertinence that’s winsomely earnest, carries an obvious nod to The Who in its title, even if the song itself is more noteworthy for the return of the Dylan harmonica. And the title song is something altogether new for Ezra Furman; it’s a pop song, pure and sweet and disarming in its lyrical and melodic innocence. The song finds Furman waxing metaphysical once again, confessing to the Lord his sense of belonging to a greater, broader understanding of the universe. He refers to himself as a simple boy in his room, and there’s a sense of genuineness to it that makes it as affecting as anything Furman’s done.
A little bit less grown-up– and perhaps a little bit less innocent– is “I Killed Myself But I Didn’t Die,” a screamer of a song that comes on like pure catharsis. It’s the confession of a failed suicide, but more than that, it’s a striking observation of teenage malaise that somehow hits home even for those of us now well out of our teens. There’s a brilliant line that cinches it: “It’s just to be or not to be/ And either way I’m just barely there.”
The thing about Ezra Furman is that he can come on a little strong, and by that I mean just that the characteristics that define him as an artist are anything but subtle; there’s downplayed here, but I still suspect that some will find a song like the acoustic ballad “Don’t Turn Your Back on Love” to be endearingly earnest, while others will find its goofball narrative to be simply irritating. (I like it a good bit, but would hesitate to call it an album highlight simply because it’s less memorable than the many similar songs from Banging Down the Doors, to say nothing of the knockout bunch of songs that open this record.) The angsty, almost emo-tinted rock howler “Bloodsucking Whore” might be equally divisive, and here I’m much more solidly in the pro camp; I love the energy of the thing, and it seems to fit in with the rest of this material quite well.
What I’m a little less enthused about is the fact that Furman’s ramshackle energy continues to result in some unevenness, and there’s a stretch of songs in the back half where the material simply isn’t that strong, at least not as strong as the stuff on the front. I’m totally on board with the closing number, though; “Wild Feeling” draws a straight, clear line back to “Mysterious Power” and “Wild Rosemarie”– not just in how it references lyrics from both songs but in how it combines the pop hooks of the former with the folksier vibe of the latter– and makes it seem as though these songs are the framework on which everything else here hinges. It’s a strong foundation for any record, certainly strong enough to overcome any drop-offs elsewhere, and it makes for listening that’s deep and rewarding– youthful where it counts but mature in some ways that might surprise.