The eternal wait in American rock is for “the new Springsteen” or, equally futile, “the new Dylan.” With fiscal graphs rollercoastering, the middle class shrinking, and #Occupy denizens resorting — in the age of Twitter and Pinterest — to the humble cardboard sign, maybe what we really need is a new Guthrie.
“There’s something in the water, something sick in the blood and the oil,” Ezra Furman sings against an intimidatingly locomotive guitar chug on “American Soil,” the second track on The Year of No Returning. In a cascade of pessimistic couplets, the San Francisco singer-songwriter marries ecological dread to economic ennui, and in the chorus casts doubt on the myth of American exceptionalism: “I can feel God taking his eyes off us.” Later, on the engaging rocker “Cruel, Cruel World,” he spells it out less allegorically: “Lost my job, lost my money in a flash/ Watched my old life turn to dust in a flash.”
It’s all more on-the-nose than Woody would have ever made it, prone as he was to couching his criticisms as wry observation. But Furman is writing in an age of more direct speech, when balladry seems on the rocks. Furman is also leaning on some different instrumentation, in a sort of Tom Waits wake effect: strings, beerhall piano, baritone saxophone. (Not to worry, guitar and harmonica are well represented.) The sentiments, if blunt, are important and come from the heart, and Furman’s music is strong enough to bear their weight.