Ezra Furman: Perpetual Motion People review – oddball rock from a genuine original | Alexis Petridis' album of the week

(Bella Union)

In September 1995, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum opened in Cleveland, Ohio, its ribbon cut by Yoko Ono and Little Richard. Not everyone was happy. A US writer called Bill Repsher suggested that, instead of 150,000 square feet of memorabilia, a museum of rock’n’roll should only have one exhibit: “a dummy made up to look like a skinny, acne-scarred kid in a bedroom”, its window overlooking a street where said kid’s popular peers – “the kind that would never look twice at a loser like that” – are hanging out. “The only thing of note in the kid’s room? An AM radio and a beat-up pawnshop acoustic guitar. That’s rock’n’roll, straight down to the heart.”

There are those who would suggest that Repsher’s assessment is hopelessly romantic and hopelessly out of date. The notion of rock’n’roll as a meeting house for misfits, a place where the weirdness of weirdos is prized as originality – is obsolete. These days, the kids outside the window are more likely to be rock stars than the one in the bedroom. Everything is focus-grouped and styled into suffocating blandness; the oddballs and the outcasts don’t get past reception. The best you can hope for is a tired simulation of rebellion against conformity, with all the old moves trotted out by artists who look like they’ve done a BTEC in advanced guitar-smashing and wearing sunglasses.

Looking at the charts, you can see what they mean, but it seems safe to say that anyone who says that hasn’t come across 28-year-old Chicago artist Ezra Furman, who wears his outsider status like a badge of pride on his third solo album: “They’ll never pin me down in the pages like a bug”; “We can’t fit in, so we head for the margins.” There’s always the chance that if they do, they might greet him with a jaded eye and a yawn – oh, for God’s sake, surely not more doo-wop-influenced punk rock about mental illness and gender issues performed by a bisexual, cross-dressing, observant Jew who prefers not to play live during Shabbat – but you somehow doubt it. Certainly, those who’ve fallen for him seem to have fallen hard. In the space of three years, he’s gone from pleading for money on Kickstarter – “too many artists give up on their work because of financial constraints and I’d hate to be one of those” – to appearing on Later… With Jools Holland in a red mini-dress, lipstick and pearls, powered on his way by critical acclaim.

Watch Ezra Furman on Later… With Jools Holland – video

Perhaps some of that is down to context: Furman would probably have seemed fairly unusual in any era, but his distinctiveness shines a little brighter in a world where a lot of rock is painted in neutral shades. More likely, it’s down to his music. In one sense, there is nothing really new here. The guitars and reedy organ are straight out of the garages of 1966: Tip of a Match sounds like a song from the Velvet Underground’s 1970 album Loaded that’s been subjected to an unprovoked assault from the distortion-saturated Velvet Underground of White Light/White Heat; the shoo-be-dooing backing vocals date from a decade earlier, while the brass arrangements are variously borrowed from Phil Spector by way of the E Street Band or, more unexpectedly, from the sleazy, overloaded honk of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs. Equally unexpected – so unexpected that it’s probably coincidental – is how much Furman’s voice can sound like Jake Burns of Stiff Little Fingers, not a name frequently dropped as an influence in recent years.

But Furman’s skill lies in rearranging various influences from his record collection in a way that sounds fresh and artless. Some moments on Perpetual Motion People do feel slightly forced – the grim shadow of self-conscious wackiness looms over Wobbly, as is perhaps inevitable on a song that features histrionic vocals, vaguely ska-ish rhythms and Benny-Hill-theme yakkety sax – but they are very fleeting. For the most part, this is music that never sounds studied or overthought. It rages along at a cathartic intensity that perfectly matches the lyrics. Haunted Head evokes the tumult of a bipolar mind in manic mode, the opening Restless Year and Lousy Connection are part painful self-examination, part triumphant Rebel Rebelish rallying cries: “Making the rounds in my five-dollar dress / I can’t go home though I’m not homeless,” he sings on the former, “and if you can’t come down, you can listen to this.”

Furman is an extremely deft lyricist. When the songs take on social issues, gender-based or otherwise, you never feel hectored or lectured. Pot Holes takes the kind of breezily primitive rock’n’roll Jonathan Richman would deploy on a joyous song about milkshakes or baseball, and welds it to a witheringly funny blast at Chicago’s racial divides. The snarling yet gleeful Body Was Made is a kind of inverse image of the dysmorphic misery found on Antony and the Johnsons’ I Am a Bird Now, a sax-decorated strut that hymns Furman’s “need to become something totally new, a mysterious process that don’t involve you”, “so just fuckin’ relax,” he offers. “Don’t pile my plate with historical facts.”

It ends by throwing the listener a final curveball: One Day I Will Sin No More sounds like a plaintive 19th-century hymn. It is sung without a hint of irony, no suggestion of a raised eyebrow. It’s the last thing you’d expect, which perversely means it fits perfectly with the rest of the album. “Never classify me, don’t try,” Furman sings at one point. It is more than bluster: Perpetual Motion People is the restless sound of a genuine one-off in a generic world.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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