Ezra Furman & the Harpoons have been under-appreciated for almost five years now. Their 2007 debut, Banging Down the Doors, rambles about in concise, lunatic/poetic narratives, Furman’s voice falling somewhere between Bob Dylan’s Americana drawl and Violent Femmes frontman Gordon Gano’s manic, nasal bark. Their 2008 follow-up, Inside the Human Body, followed through on that promise, some tracks (like harmonica-laden “Take Off Your Sunglasses” or the opening yelp of “In a trance in France I learned to dance” on “Big Deal”) bursting with anxious energy, others (like “The Worm in the Apple”) floating by on sly metaphors and tense emotion. While Furman’s idiosyncratic songwriting and perfectly off-kilter delivery is clearly the focal point, the Harpoons backing him up (Job Mukkada on bass, Adam Abrutyn on drums, and Andrew Langer on guitar) blend styles and genres, pummel and wilt, soar and fold, in turn, all to complete the powerful vision of the vocalist/songwriter. Mysterious Power, then, takes all of that and doubles the effect, the Harpoons furthering their prowess and demanding their share of attention, while Furman unfolds more lyrical genius.
Album opener “Wild Rosemarie” starts out as a Furman-centric endeavor, a whirring hum quieting down for acoustic guitar and more brilliant, heartfelt emotions. “I thought about water, how it drowned us after all,” he moans, “how we used to thirst for it to burst forth from the sky and start to fall.” The song’s hopeful, scared lyrics get a touch-more-dramatic punch thanks to just off-key, haunting high-end piano, some cymbal rolls, and a massive, wordless choir harmony. Mukkada’s Pixies-style, thuddingly simple bass line opens the following “I Killed Myself But I Didn’t Die”, a supercharged pop song about how depression can dull you to everything, even pop songs, while also bringing you back to the dull reality of the rest of the world. “She only wants a sensitive guy, and I’ve been in and out of my mind three times,” Furman howls as Langer loops out a massive guitar hook. Late in the song, the Harpoons take to more wordless backing vocals as Furman seems to run into a corner of the room, screaming.
“Hard Time in a Terrible Land” combines a bluesy barroom stomp with biblical imagery. When it comes to failure, it can all be blamed away: “I’m looking for a job, but it’s hard to find/Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the vine/They got theirs and now I’ve got mine.” The nearly doo-wop, rumbling goodness of the title track captures that naive sincerity of being “a boy in [his] room” that Furman pulls off so well, Abrutyn kicking out a big rhythm at the chorus and cooling it down sweetly as the vocalist gets serious in the verses. “Teenage Wasteland” takes a turn on a sort of harmonica punk, The Harpoons sounding like the perfect bar band, as Furman wails out lyrics about his unpredictability and eccentricity (think Jonathan Richman losing his mind).
Later, a song called “Bloodsucking Whore” turns out to be surprisingly tender. Lyrics include opening line “Please say you love me, I’ll give you all of my money”, “I’ll sell my body to take you out to the movies on Friday”, and after promising he’ll kiss her neck so hard he’ll suck the blood out of her jugular, he promises that “if you’ll be mine, then I’ll be your bloodsucking whore.” When things seem like they’re serious, he’ll let out a line like “girl you drive me wild, let’s have sex, but let’s not make a child,” later revealing that he’s “twisted” and “letting out all of these feelings [he] never knew existed.” The song perfectly encapsulates why Furman is such a compelling songwriter: Whenever he starts to get too schticky he gives you a heartbreaking emotional lyric, and when things start getting too sappy he has the perfect joke. Throughout, Langer and Furman flail away at their guitars, driving out epic lines on possibly the album’s best track.
“Don’t turn your back on love, no don’t turn your back on love you idiot…you fool,” punctuates the Harpoon-less “Don’t Turn Your Back on Love”, furthering the clever self-deprecation. Another key theme within the album is the link between love and America, especially in uncertainty. “Don’t Turn Your Back” also tackles that subject, discussing how “something about her reminds me of the United States” because of her glory and imagination and the origins of the song “America the Beautiful”. “Portrait of Maud” tells the story of a confusing love and how it feels like being a pioneer. But history knows there’s a dark cloud coming for all pioneers: “The tumbleweeds have changed into plastic shopping bags, all the buffalo are dead, and there’s nowhere left to expand.” Furman seems to embrace and fear the confusing, multi-faceted natures of individuals as much as he does his country; both have amazing power and beauty, but both can be inconsistent, difficult to pin down or understand.
As much as he’s trying to understand other people, Furman’s also coming to terms with himself in his lyrics. “I’m done with the girls and I’m done with the boys, I’m done,” he insists on “Too Strung Out”, declaring himself uncool and too distracted and strung out to follow the rules. “The things I know I can’t deny in my room, the angels sing to me and fly in my room, I open up my little eye in my room after sunset…but in the morning I go out of my room, the world of men fills me with doubt of my room, that’s why I’ve got a song about my bedroom, so I don’t forget,” he sighs. As much as he’s willing to admit his faults and flaws, there’s power in isolation, in thought, in the self. And if that’s not enough, we can always try to come together: “If you ever feel alone in the world, you can call me on the phone in the world,” he offers before insisting that honesty is the greatest hope in the face of destruction.
Both Furman and The Harpoons shine on this record, both embracing the strengths that they’ve shown on prior recordings and accentuating them. While the music pushes and flashes with genius, Furman unravels more brilliant lyrics, exploring love, self, and community, offering as many heartbreaking moments as he does laugh-out-loud barbs. Mysterious Power does all this smart, impressive work without sacrificing any pop listen-ability, hopefully gaining the band the serious attention they deserve.