All by himself for the first time, songwriter Ezra Furman struck out in a lot of different ways on The Year of No Returning. He made the record shortly after dissolving Ezra and the Harpoons, his band since college, which had hit its critical high water mark with the 2011 release Mysterious Power.
Moving back to Chicago, holing up in an attic studio, working with a revolving crew of local musicians, it all seemed to free him to work in a variety of styles. The record swaggers– and mostly successfully — through garage rock, Dylan-ish rasping acoustic, piano ballads, epic psychedelic and rollicking country rock. Emotions run raw through all these styles – even at his smoothest and most ballad-y, Furman’s voice cracks and hiccups with feeling. Yet there’s a sleekness, a feeling of finish and craftsmanship, in cuts like “Lay in the Sun” and “Down”. Mysterious Power felt like a fast, rattling joyride. Year of No Returning seems more like a Sunday excursion to the local scenic high points.
Furman’s lyrics are characteristically sharp, whether he’s contemplating social ills or interpersonal difficulties. My favorite lines come in closer “Queen of Hearts,” where, against a strutting, back-leaning vamp of acoustic guitars, he observes, “It’s the search for a church in the bottom of your purse, a spiritual home you can take to the mall, you dig and you dig but you can only find your wallet and your phone with 100 missed calls, you could never return them all.” It’s a thorny conflation of spiritual longing and economics, of loneliness and technological connection that unfolds in half a minute. It also fits tightly to the song’s musical structure, its words echoing the guitar rhythms in a spate of internal rhymes and assonances. You can hardly say the words out of time.
While, Furman explores less raucous genres, he still knows how to rock. “American Soil” is like a Mats song that went to college and majored in comp lit, beautifully sloppy, maybe a little drunk, but still demonstrably the smartest song in the room. “That’s When It Hit Me” is even wilder, more brashly defiant, its snare drum bashed, its guitars thrashed, its choruses shouted in tipsy straight-up four-four, like a drunk who’s trying to walk as straight as possible for the cops.
Year of No Returning may not be the definitive post-Harpoons Furman record – he’s got another one coming this fall – but it is an album to build on. From it, Furman could step out into any number of interesting directions, from gospel-soul balladry (“Down”) to shout-it-out punk garage (“American Soil”). He’s not returning. He’s certainly not standing still. He’s setting out. And that’s exciting.
DOWNLOAD: “American Soil” “Queen of Hearts”