Context can be everything. However, even without the sharply penned, spiritually pointed liner notes one quickly picks up on the whopping soulful unease of The Year of No Returning (released on CD by Bar/None Records on July 16), the solo debut from Ezra Furman. As Furman points out early on, “You don’t have to be clever to detect a big American sadness,” and the boyish former frontman of cult adored Ezra Furman & The Harpoons doesn’t flinch in his dissection of this heart hungry, soul starved age. However, this is no pulpit thumping, Furman instead offering a modern take on Brian Wilson’s teenage symphonies to God, where the divine is approached with pop-touched sweetness and reflective sincerity.
Jan & Dean, Scritti Politti, Dr. Dog and Jonathan Richman all spring to mind at various points, as well as the aforementioned Beach Boy, and if one didn’t have Furman’s guiding hand in the liner notes – which begin “This work is dedicated to the glory of God and the consolation of man” – it might mostly seem boy-girl, bittersweet love stuff. But he’s hardly coy about what’s really going on beneath the surface, particularly in the songs that bookened the album, most especially charmingly possessed rocker “American Soil”:
Every race has its place, every nation fights for species survival,
I’m a Jew through and through and I’m about to write you a Bible
Now let me take your hand and lead you through
the twisted hallways of the house of song
We got the magazine wallpaper and the million dollar bills on the lawn
And I can feel God taking his eyes off us
We were born for American soil
The malaise of this cruel, cruel world is poked at with finger snapping aplomb, and there’s no reason some lovelorn youngsters can’t find solace and understanding here but Furman is courting a lover not of this world even as he sorts out the depression and drama interaction with our fellow beings brings. With the aim of “real protest” against the state of affairs that is the human condition in the 21st century, The Year Of No Returning digs through his reactions to these times, which he states have been “variously dissociation, anger, escapism, despair, masochism, self-pity, bitterness, etc.” It’s easy enough to relate to Furman’s POV as well as his thesis that “We are almost constantly either working or being entertained, and in this way we are always anesthetized. This threatens to turn us into monsters.”
In a voice like a cracked, wild prayer, Furman is after more than “a church you can take to the mall.” If one allows this album full purchase it can till up some heavy feelings, the truths here piercing one in tender, ignored spots, the soul kicked awake and called to action.