The Desperate Ones
Ezra Furman on anger, making songs for movements, and her messianic Jewish album about the end of empire.
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In the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, the singer-songwriter describes what drew him to Woody Guthrie: “You could listen to his songs and actually learn how to live.” This could easily be said of Ezra Furman’s new album All of Us Flames, which came out late last month. As with many anti-fascist artists before her, the 35-year-old musician’s work does not just reflect its times, but offers tools for surviving them and fighting back. All of Us Flames conveys a messianic prophecy predicting an uprising that will topple patriarchal capitalism, while doubling as an organizing manual and a protest songbook. “We labored and we built your dwellings here on the hillside / The structures set in stone, not a chance they could slide / But a great machine can break down suddenly if someone removes a tiny screw,” Furman warns on the album’s opening track “Train Comes Through.”
Furman, who was raised outside Chicago, has released nine albums of cinematic, playful, subversively classic rock and roll under various solo and group monikers since 2006. She’s also the author of a 33⅓ book about Lou Reed’s Transformer and recently scored the TV show Sex Education. While her music has always been full of a yearning for transcendence and stories of lonely outcasts, it’s become more rebelliously spiritual and discontented over time, as she’s come out as trans and become an observant Jew.
Furman’s previous album—Twelve Nudes, released in 2019—was a seething defibrillator shock of a punk record, written from a void of gender dysphoria and rage against the rich and complacent. All of Us Flames is in some ways a much gentler and more literary project, while managing to be even more militant. In the gritty world of the album, underground syndicates of Jews and queer people organize, traveling in gangs, speaking in code, and stockpiling weapons and intelligence while the powers that be are none the wiser. In a series of bluesy Dylanesque battle epics, love stories, and down-and-out road epics, Furman imagines the stories we might tell in the future about “the great transfiguration” that ended our current “brutal static order” and eulogizes those we lost to it.
The way she sings about revolution as inevitable can feel uncomfortable, like wishful thinking. But Furman, who recently completed her first semester of rabbinical school, takes seriously the idea of the messiah, and messianism’s point-blank insistence that the world can and will be improved. And while half of All of Us Flames is battle songs, the other half is about life in the meantime: Many songs are portraits of or odes to the life-saving bonds formed on the margins, and the meaning and safety Furman has found in queer and Jewish communities.
I spoke with Furman over Zoom from her childhood bedroom outside Chicago, where she was staying while opening a run of shows for Jack White. We talked about finding a sustainable relationship to anger, the reason so many Jews refuse Judaism’s radical alignments, and why people get so “shy” about messianism. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Jael Goldfine: Twelve Nudes was this vicious, blunt, full-throttle punk album. To me, All of Us Flames seems softer, but simultaneously much more ambitious and radical in what you’re calling for. I’m wondering if you agree with that.
Ezra Furman: I’ve been thinking a lot about how militancy can be sustained. You either burn out or you incorporate your anger and panic into a spiritually sustainable stance. The fear, anger, panic—it’s all there but you’re like: These are just facts of our lives. Because the most effective thing for us to be is strong, for a longer haul.
I’ve been thinking a lot about anger. Moses Maimonides said that you should never feel angry. That’s so him, you know? His qualification is that there are some times when you should appear to be angry. Sometimes people need to be woken up by your display of anger. But inwardly, you shouldn’t actually feel angry. Like, what if you don’t have to feel consumed by fucking fire to be in effective and vigorous opposition to the things that hurt people? What if you were to have both inner peacefulness and the willingness to fight? It more and more seems like that’s the key to being an effective defender of human rights. With all respect to those who set themselves on fire, most of us don’t. And if we all did, then we’d be gone.
JG: There was so much rage and anxiety and desperation on Twelve Nudes. It sounds like it was created from a very dark place. All of Us Flames has a different emotional core: There’s so much hope, joy, and power on this record. There’s almost a euphoric glee, taunting those in power. Could you talk about the emotional trajectory of the last couple albums?
EF: I mean, I do think I’m doing better with my general mental health then I was when I made Twelve Nudes. But I don’t think that accounts for what you’re talking about. It’s more a shift in focus. I’ve been thinking a lot about what songs are for, what kind of spiritual resources they can provide. With a couple of exceptions, the artist is more concealed than ever, and less on display. This album was not an experience of catharsis for me but a tool for somebody to use. I have this dream that these could be useful to a movement, or something to sing in the parking lot outside the direct action. Probably, their real use will be a little more personal for people. I was trying to make armor for somebody, that somebody could wear. That’s its main purpose, a communal suit of armor that we can all use.
JG: It does feel like an album that could be functional, instructive. Maybe you could walk me through “Train Comes Through,” because it sounds like an organizing handbook; there’s strategy in there. How did you decide to write that song?
EF: To me, it’s a very spiritual song. It’s got a strong dose of messianic yearning. The whole thing is modeled on the prophets: “a day is coming, burning like an oven.” You know, the dream that evil will be toppled and the righteous will be vindicated.
The personal side of that song is that we had a landlord who lived on the floor above us. We found out about a week after we moved in that he was a terrible person and really transphobic. He pretty directly implied that he wouldn’t have rented to us if he knew I was trans. So, “We are the people underneath”—that phrase was almost literal. We are underneath this horrible guy who’s making our lives miserable.
At the same time, I was seeing all these public tragedies happening: Covid, police killings and mass shootings as a commonplace aspect of American life. I was seeing how communal the healing was. There’s something about messianic yearning that is a tool of a community in mourning. That’s a secret thread on this record.
JG: Where do you feel like the mourning appears?
EF: The first and last songs on this album reference this line from Psalm 34: “God is close to the brokenhearted.” I keep that line with me. So “Train Comes Through” has that line about “a broken heart’s your ticket” and the last song, “Come Close,” is like a prayer, asking God for that line in the Psalms to be true.
I take that line as a bit of a beautiful mystery. Why is it true that somebody who’s been broken has access to God? It’s not true for everybody. Some people are just broken and the God muscle atrophies, or you turn away from it. “Come Close” is a desperate song, which I’ve been writing since 2017. That’s the one song with true events from my life in it. It contains my frustration with Pride parades and rainbow flags and corporate emotions. Even without the stupid parts of Pride, even just the “pride” part of Pride, the stridency, which I believe in—sometimes I just don’t feel strident. I feel crushed by society and by my stupid life. I’m not one of the proud, forward-marching battalion of queers, I’m one of the desperate ones. The other working title was “The Desperate Ones” which is the name of a Nina Simone song. There’s a line in “Come Close”: “but the desperate ones don’t disappear, we’re all still hanging around.”
JG: This album envisions victory—the fall of hetero-patriarchal capitalism—and how we are going to get there. Do you think it’s important to spend time envisioning utopia, as a spiritual exercise? I think we don’t often let ourselves do that. It feels too premature, too sweet or absurd, because we’re so far away.
EF: Let me say something that surely not everyone agrees with. I believe in the coming of a messianic age. There’s an insidious temptation to say: “This is how it’s always been. This is how it’s always gonna be.” The oppression of the poor and oppression in general and money controlling everything, state-sponsored murder, that kind of stuff. People stop short of saying “That’s how it should be.” But it kind of doesn’t matter if you say it should or shouldn’t be that way if you say that that’s the way it always was and always will be.
JG: That’s kind of the idea of capitalist realism, that people have been so immersed in capitalism they can no longer envision a coherent alternative.
EF: Messianism is really extreme in terms of what we can imagine: a world without war or oppression or poverty. A world where evil holds no currency and is laughed at. It matters a lot for me to yearn for that actively. And I do. I do it every day. I pray. Messianism is something that even a lot of people who are into Judaism are shy about. But it matters to me to insist that the world could be perfected. It gets you working on it. I have this thing where it makes me really angry when people say that the world is getting worse and worse. I understand that it comes from an emotional, reactive place, but it hurts my feelings, almost. I don’t know, I can’t explain it.
JG: Listening to this album, I felt almost suspicious of my own enjoyment. There is this cathartic, euphoric fantasy. But the catharsis felt unearned, like I shouldn’t revel in this if I’m not doing the work. Do you think there’s a risk in talking about victory or uprising as a dialectical inevitability? Do you feel any anxiety speaking about revolution in certain terms?
EF: I do relate when people talk about hope as a cruel practice. I know what they mean. I wouldn’t tell anyone who feels disgusted by the idea of hope that they have to feel it. But you’ve got to do something. I think I’m doing anti-despair work. I first put that into words when my band and I played a concert the night after the 2016 presidential election. And that’s the first time I said, “This band is an anti-despair machine.”
The Jewish tradition has called despair the greatest sin. There’s a lot of really understandable reasons you would feel despair, or like despair is the sensible reaction to our situation. But some of us need fuel to avoid that. Some of us can’t survive it. Probably the reason people are squeamish about messianic talk or utopia talk is because it seems to suggest that someone else will come solve all the problems and we don’t need to work on them. You just have to understand that that’s not the point. The point is to situate ourselves from a position of: This world is wrong, something is wrong.
JG: You’ve said that you wrote this album for Jews and trans people. Was there a time when you tried to write more universally? What was the decision or journey around committing yourself to writing for Jews and trans people, of narrowing your scope?
EF: The thing is, I feel like I’ve actually widened my scope by narrowing it. I have this thing about: Who is my audience? Who do I want my audience to be? How much is that a question that matters? Increasingly, I feel like it doesn’t matter at all.
I don’t know if I’m talking to my communities [in my songs]. I do think I’m talking from my communities. Both are in there. Think about how a book like the Bible is addressed to a small group of people. It says: “Here’s how we can live in another way that is not like the Egyptian empire that tried to kill us. Here’s our different way of being and treating the poor and the outsider.” Yeah, it’s for a specific community—yet, almost the whole world reads that book.
JG: Last time we spoke, we talked about the relationship between punk rock and Judaism and the idea of Judaism as a counterculture. There’s a few different things that can mean. There’s the literal fact that we’re a minority; there’s the fact that there are social justice-oriented messages within the doctrine. Then there’s the fact that being a religiously observant person within the capitalist world can be quite radical, even anti-capitalist, because you are loyal to something else besides work and money; you organize your life around and worship something else. For instance, you talked about not playing shows Friday nights, and the fact that the powers that be do not want you to stay home for half the weekend, not spend or earn money. I’m wondering if you could talk about those different layers to the idea of Judaism as counterculture, and if you feel like there’s potential for Jews to find spirituality as an answer to capitalism.
EF: I think it should be highlighted that for most of the history of the Jews, we’ve been a people hunted by empire. We’ve been, if not always an insurgent movement, then dissenting or just apart. That role, that dissenting aspect of being a Jew, has been totally eclipsed because we’ve found so much acceptance in the West, and we’re in a golden age of Jewish safety. The state of Israel is a huge spiritual problem, I think, for the Jewish people. Just the lived practice of doing Judaism and being in a Jewish community or studying Jewish texts—those acts have historically been acts of nonparticipation [in the state]. But what are the most prominent things about being Jewish now? Rich complacent Americans and the violent and oppressive state of Israel. Those are the first things you see. The last thing you see is the fuckin’ Talmud.
A lot of people are turning to spiritual traditions and ancestral wisdom as a way of dissenting or as nonparticipation. I don’t understand why so few Jews seem to recognize Judaism as one of those resources. I think it’s probably because the Jewish people have been really, really traumatized. We were mass murdered and then offered sanctuary, and we’re just so ready to cling to the gifts from the king. And people have started to think that those gifts from the king are our culture. And it’s like, “No, they usually keep us poor and try to kill us.” So I think we ought to be looking at the people who are kept poor and are being killed, and think of those as our people. In that regard, I hope that this record can be a document of spiritual Jewish dissent.
Jael Goldfine is a culture writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Vanity Fair, GQ, Vulture, Them, Bandcamp, Stereogum, Paper, Glamour, and Nylon, among other outlets.