In terms of both the joyful force it exudes and the restrictive forces imposed upon it, femininity is inherently violent. Going back to the earliest examples of mythology, you can usually find some reference to an orderly, masculine representation of the sun, serving as a foil to the chaos of the moon that forcibly bends the tides and weather to its will under the cover of night. As time goes on, stakes burn, organs shift within the confines of corsets and hair is ripped clean from follicles in an attempt to reign that chaos in. Gender is a concept of our own creation, but those who perform the feminine side of the rigid binary many cling to know the horrors, some even considered mundane, that a patriarchal system must perpetrate in order to survive. It all feeds on imprisonment and fear.
Chicago-born singer/songwriter Ezra Furman found this same pattern of violence scattered across pop music’s origins, especially while reading stories about ‘60s girl groups she came to love. Mary Weiss, the lead singer of The Shangri-Las, claimed to have carried a gun and most of the band’s cash with her while on tour, as she and her bandmates (aged 15 to 17 at the time) had no security or management with them. Though the Queens quartet’s operatic tales of teenage euphoria, heartbreak and even death allowed legend to grow around them, they lived the darkness that those they influenced only performed; it was a matter of survival. While The Ronettes blew teenage melodrama up to dizzying orchestral heights, reliant on the once-in-a-lifetime voice of the late Ronnie Spector, the person crafting each angelic mini-masterpiece for her to sing also held her hostage in their home for years, threatening to kill her and display her body in the house if she ever tried to leave.
Furman also knows that the joys and fears of trans women are doubled to either extreme compared to those of their cis counterparts, as violent transmisogyny continues to run rampant and women who share her experiences are forced to live in the shadows. “I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am a woman,” Furman wrote in an April 2021 Instagram post, “and yes for me it’s complex, but it’s complex to be any sort of woman … Trans people deserve to pursue the lives we want, on our terms.” In an effort to imagine that better future for those like her (and mourn those lost), the jarring freneticism of her prior album, 2019’s Twelve Nudes, gave way to the collective war cry of All of Us Flames, providing what she calls her “queer girl gang” with a soundtrack rooted in emancipation, rather than tragedy.
After writing the album in remote locations around Massachusetts during the early months of the pandemic, Furman settled in Los Angeles with producer John Congleton to create what might be her most cohesive effort to date. Fans of Twelve Nudes and earlier projects like 2007’s Banging Down have nothing to fear, as the crackling punk sensibilities and searching Springsteenian lyrics on which Furman built her reputation stay put, as she injects her ferocious howl into jagged tales of collective self-discovery. “Urgency” is a word that comes to mind with every lyrical turn, with each sentiment sounding like it sat dormant in her throat for ages and has only now been released, brash and immediate.
This startling shift of sudden visibility is central to opener “Train Come Through,” which, despite its slow build of zig-zagging synth loops, eventually barrels to a noisy conclusion aided by primal yells fizzling into static. “They’ll tell about your system as a system with no teeth / The histories will name us as the people underneath,” Furman growls as she’s enveloped in her own Wall of Sound, letting the light of what’s to come touch all corners of the room. The thrumming pulse of lead single “Forever in Sunset” similarly relies on the swell and release of the music building around her, erupting into a chorus that shoots skyward like it’s been fired from a cannon. “The future is a text message sending / Out, out, out,” she shouts, conjuring an image of a blue line that halts for long enough to let all of your second thoughts creep up and tap you on the shoulder, followed by a strangled cry that recalls Lady Macbeth rubbing her hands raw to will bloodstains away.
The breathless rush of these songs sparks the fire that the record’s more grandiose tracks take their time to bask in, letting slow-burners like “Dressed in Black” (which borrows its name from a Shangri-Las b-side) crystallize the album’s thesis. Rounds of heavenly backing vocals guide a story of lovers on the run pulled from the girl group’s own playbook before reaching a synth-tinged crescendo, mirroring the apocalyptic landscape surrounding the song’s protagonists: “Stockpile supplies, my knives, your gun / You’ll call my name and I will come.” Moments on “Point Me Toward the Real” and “I Saw the Truth Undressing” glimpse what a torch ballad might sound like in Furman’s world, with the latter coming undone amid layers of unwieldy horns and gently strummed guitars that peel away like petals as it winds to a close.
Religion is central to Furman’s vision of a trans utopia, leading her to cram both a plea to a deity and the minutiae of daily life into any given line as she chronicles her experiences down to the exact minute they happened. She tells of a meeting with God through her bedroom window on “Poor Girl a Long Way from Heaven” and invokes the second book of the Hebrew Bible on “Book of Our Names,” praying for a future with “none of us missing, none exactly the same / None of us ashes, all of us flames.” Meanwhile, “Ally Sheedy in the Breakfast Club” finds her taking refuge in secular idols she yearned to emulate when she was young amidst the quiet, skipping drone of a worn VHS tape: “Part of me was swimming there beneath the water in your eyes / Silent she, keeping quiet as the fury and the joy rise / Taking their time.”
Though her writing is steeped in her own Jewish faith, Furman’s songs bow to the worship of survival first, summoning all-seeing eyes to act as witnesses to the earthly miracles of which marginalized groups are capable. Even the occasional overly earnest lyric can be forgiven when you view each verse as a time capsule, one that will hopefully be met with gasps of disbelief in the near future, the next generation disbelieving the world could be so cruel to those who fight 10 times as hard to exist and shouldn’t have to. “How they’ll talk about you / How they’ll spill your blood / How they’ll love you when you’re gone for good,” Furman sings, meaning it as a eulogy, a spell to ward off a violent end and a warning to those who dare wish her ill, all wrapped up in one.
Punk in sentiment, pop in sound, and political for the fact that it exists, All of Us Flames weaves justified fury into a testament to community, borrowing from sounds of the past to envision a less destructive future. With each stuttering tape noise and screeching keyboard patch, the listener is folded into a striking vision of what comes next. If the current system feeds on fear, Ezra Furman’s revolution feeds on liberation—and its advent will be violent and joyful in equal measure.
Elise Soutar is a writer, musician, friend of witches, wannabe punk and annoying New Yorker. You can watch her share the same pictures of David Bowie over and over again on Twitter @moonagedemon.