In an interview in late 2018 with Chicago-based art punk Ezra Furman on this very website, the singer succinctly outlined his follow-up to his fantastic album Transangelic Exodus, which had come out earlier that year: “I’m making a punk record.” Almost exactly nine months later, he’s back with Twelve Nudes, a punk record that keeps his promise in the only way he could. From a career standpoint, Twelve Nudes makes perfect sense. Last year’s Transangelic Exodus was his best album yet, a dense and thematically complicated album that pulled the singer in a lot of different messy and emotive directions, and one that required you to dig a lot out of the lyrics to get to the heart of it.
By comparison, this album is all id, the Technicolor wash that made Exodus irresistible despite its density stripped back to the bolts. There’s no shine to be seen anywhere, with every square inch covered in a protective layer of sonic grime. It’s easy to miss the poppy impulses and bright flourishes of songs like “Love You So Bad,” “Suck the Blood From My Wound,” and “Maraschino Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill,” none of which are really comparable to anything here (except perhaps “My Teeth Hurt”), which is a huge part of the album’s charm.
Furman and his band purportedly slapped this album together fast, faster than anything they’ve made since Day of the Dog, and it shows – it’s sloppy, loud, grimy and far more immediate than its predecessor, and they don’t waste even a second pretending: “Calm Down (aka I Should Not Be Alone)” makes you want to punch someone in the face in the best possible way, Furman’s voice deployed like a sonic flamethrower. That it’s sometimes a struggle to really catch what he’s shouting seems like a calculated decision after the emotional nakedness of Transangelic Exodus. That energy carries a lot of the record’s first half, and the feeling of listening to a song that’s also literally on fire makes songs like the Guided By Voices-esque “Rated R Crusaders,” “Thermometer,” and the delightfully alt-rocky “Trauma” exhilarating.
Perhaps not shockingly, the songs where Furman slows down enough for his incendiary delivery to become more legible are the ones that stick the fastest. The dynamic closing trio of “My Teeth Hurt,” “In America” and “What Can You Do But Rock ’n’ Roll” is the album’s closest sonic link to what he accomplished on Transangelic Exodus, with the final song combining that album’s spirit with Nudes’ “seconds from explosion” energy that permeates so much of the album’s front half. There’s also the surf rocky “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend,” where he squares his queer feels against the budding adulthoods of everyone else: “All my friends are writing resumes/ My responsible friends were applying jobs/ But me, I was considering ditching Ezra and going by Esme/ Baby, would you find that so odd?”
Furman is talented enough that even his most slap-dash works are refreshingly full of entirely successful songs, but Nudes isn’t perfect. Perhaps the most egregious case of “Who edited this?” is “Blown,” which sounds like it’s coming out of, well, a blown speaker. It’s the shortest track of the bunch, coming in at just 56 seconds; Twelve Nudes operates under the rule of “first thought, best thought,” but this song should have faced the chopping block in its current state, as anything lyrical that might make the song worthwhile is too overblown to be comprehensible. It also derails the album’s flow entirely, which is made worse by the fact that, without it, “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend” and “My Teeth Hurt” would fit perfectly together.
It’s always fascinating to see what artists make after they make albums like Transangelic Exodus, the types of albums that are dense or intensely personal, or that just break apart their formula to make something new. Nudes allows Furman to scream and thrash out everything that Transangelic brought to the surface, like the sonic equivalent of destroying a copier with a baseball bat. It’s an unorthodox palate cleanser, but it’s probably the best one possible for Furman; after this, there’s no telling what we’re going to get from him next.