Transphobia is not punk. No form of bigotry is, no matter how often dweebs in polo shirts declare their odiously hateful politics to be “the new punk rock.” Ezra Furman, meanwhile, is punk, both spiritually and sonically, on Twelve Nudes, the rock ’n’ roll flame-keeper’s eighth album under his own name. Recorded in a flurry of inspiration last fall—“We made it in Oakland, quickly. We drank and smoked. Then we made the loud parts louder… the songs are naked with nothing to hide,” Furman explains in the album press release—the record is as raw as a scraped knee and more furious than a woman scorned, a brick through the window of our reactionary era that draws inspiration from the equally pissed-off first wave of punk rock. And it makes sense: The late 1970s were a period of unrest, when an abandoned generation screamed their frustrations amid the crumbling infrastructure of similarly neglected cities. Sound familiar?
Twelve Nudes kicks the door in and pogos through with “Calm Down (I Should Not Be Alone),” 2 minutes and 20 seconds of manic aggression that set the tone for the gloriously messy, cathartic 26 minutes that follow. But while the record serves as a sample platter of punk and punk-adjacent musical styles—robotic new wave on “Rated R Crusaders,” hardcore thrash on “Blown,” rolling surf-rock drums on “Thermometer,” the melodramatic ’60s ballads so beloved by Joey Ramone on “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend”—the classic rock flavor of Furman’s last album, Transangelic Exodus, also carries over. That’s especially true of “In America,” a Born In The U.S.A. B-side from another, queerer dimension that snarks, “clean me out like an enema, Miss America.” But the three degrees of Bruce Springsteen are also evident on “Evening Prayer a.k.a. Justice,” a fist-pumping call to arms whose lyrical poetry and battered guitars would make Patti Smith, with whom Springsteen wrote “Because The Night,” proud.
Queer politics and class politics dominate the lyrics on Twelve Nudes, inextricably mixed in with Furman’s own personal-is-political gender journey. (“I was considering ditching Ezra and going by Esme,” he confesses on “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend.”) All of these aspects of identity are painfully fraught in a world where fascism is on the rise, and the gap between rich and poor grows wider by the second. And Furman’s voice is appropriately shredded over clanging guitars, like he stayed up all night chain smoking before yelling his lungs out at a protest march. Some of the album’s lyrics are electrifyingly defiant, like the “fuck ’em, let’s dance” sentiment of album closer “What Can You Do But Rock ’N’ Roll.” Some of them are even darkly funny: “My Teeth Hurt,” about learning to love a toothache because you don’t have the money to fix it, should be highly relatable for artists, freelancers, retail workers, and everyone else for whom dental insurance seems as unattainable and outlandish as a gold-plated toilet.
At the same time, that song also contains the devastating truth, “when pleasure lets you down, you learn to lean into the pain.” Furman’s got a full quiver of such lyrical arrows to the heart, as when he sings, “I tried to ask what it means to be a man / they threw me in the back of a truck and tied my hands,” on “Transition From Nowhere To Nowhere,” a chilling evocation of the resurgent threat of homophobic hate crimes. (See also the anthemic “Trauma,” where Furman sings, “I know how hard you’ve been working / we all know somebody who’s been killed.”) This “positivity of negativity,” as Furman’s label Bella Union characterizes it, combines with the driving tempos and rough guitars to create a desperately vulnerable, righteously defiant artistic whole. All this ragged immediacy can be unfocused and rambling at times, even though the album clocks in at under half an hour. But when you’re sweating out all your pain and grief in the pit, an occasional elbow to the head is to be expected.