Chicago native Ezra Furman set out to make a punk record for his eighth album. During the dark days of 2018, Furman and his band “drank and smoked” their way into a blistering, concise protest album in Twelve Nudes. All of the songs express pent up rage or distress, and almost all of them do it loudly.
The rollicking opener “Calm Down aka I Should Not Be Alone” starts with chugging bass and drums before exploding into fuzzy guitar and Furman’s gritty, frantic vocals. The soaring guitar line in the bridge and the “Sympathy for the Devil” oohs breaks the track into moments of relief and panic before coming to a head in the relentless final bars.
Furman takes pages from punk rock’s many books throughout Twelve Nudes. “Blown” starts with feedback and Furman growling “trans power” before fifty seconds of bruising garage rock. “My Teeth Hurt” is a pop punk meditation on gender dysphoria. “Rated R Crusaders” is a stomper about the Israel/Palestine conflict from a place of sincere Jewish identity.
Gender, queerness, poverty, and being Jewish are far from strangers to Ezra Furman’s songwriting. Last year’s Transangelic Exodus was a “fictionalized memoir”about forbidden lovers on the run from the law; they turn to each other and the Psalms for comfort. On the doo-wop infused Perpetual Motion People, Furman sang about prayer as a lifeline on “Haunted Head,” and nonbinary identity on “Wobbly” and the body-positive jam “Body Was Made.” Furman taking these subjects into a sharp punk record feels like a natural progression rather than a sharp left turn.
There is a moment of vulnerability in the swaying “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend,” a trans love song that includes the most explicitly personal lyrics on the record. When Furman sings about “ditching Ezra and going by Esme,” something is revealed to the listener that informs the anger and anxiety on the rest of the album. Furman’s voice on the song is clear and sweet, making the lyrics unmistakable. These minutes of lovely guitar work and disarming vocals bring the album to a balance it may have otherwise lacked.
Furman is an excellent, versatile, and compelling singer. His voice is as recognizable as any heritage-rock icon. His band is accomplished and talented too, to be sure, but the real star of this album is Furman’s lyrics. They range from clever rhymes to simple declarations of pain (“We all know somebody who’s been killed”), and all of them are earnest and honest regardless of how angry, hopeful, anxious, complex, or disgusted they are. Even when he’s not easy to understand (listeners would benefit from having a lyric sheet handy), he is always easy to believe.
The closing track “What Can You Do But Rock n Roll?” ends the album with a familiar Furman sentiment: when life sucks, rock and roll. When Furman sings “What else can I do but rock and roll?” it’s a call to action, not an admission of defeat. The boldest action one can take in the face of disaster is sing about it.