Equipped with a voice as flexible as it is featherweight, Isabel Furman (aka Bel) has quietly built a name for herself amid Philly’s underground. Her live shows display a young yet self-assured performer aware of her strengths as a songwriter; her debut EP Medicine, released early in 2020, furthered that notion. Amid breezy progressions and an intimate ambiance, Furman evinced sharp insights on how reexamining your past helps you gain your sea legs as a burgeoning adult.
Beaches, Bel’s first full-length, expands upon Medicine‘s blueprint through a fuller, more developed sound. The change is immediately apparent from “Swim,” a piece that ebbs and flows and envelopes the ears in apropos fashion. Like Medicine’s “Body of Water” before it, the track is an easing into Bel’s gentle atmosphere.
Unlike its predecessor, however, a greater sense of gravitas anchors the song. Furman’s vocals read louder and more present, and the way the track builds, keeping the drums and bass at bay until more than halfway through, insinuates a better sense of restraint and carries a stronger payoff.
Much of Beaches follows “Swim” and its augmented compositional ambition. “Desert Creature” swirls mellifluously as it fluctuates between 6/4 and 3/4 time, adding a mild disorienting effect that makes Furman’s vocal parts feel less verse-like and more like grace notes peppered throughout. “Or Nothing’s” transition from verse to chorus to post-chorus is smooth as silk, as are the spots of trumpet and the spindly bass that brother Eli Furman tangles around Isabel’s tight chords. “Hudson” posits Bel as a slightly more verbose Snail Mail; “Delilah,” with its overt pop inclinations, infers a more straightforward Regina Spektor.
I’ve got plans that make me someone, I’ve got people I can be.
The true standout, as before, is the breadth of Furman’s lyrics. It’s easy to elide over the fact that relatable topics are conveyed most effectively when approached from an angle, and it’s just as easy to take for granted when someone so young is able to do that. Though it’s still in development, Furman bears that gift.
“Delilah” borrows from the old Hebrew story to ruminate on how we can destroy ourselves for the sake of someone else. “Russian Doll” pairs the image of the matryoshka, and a collection of other tchotchkes, in a series of extended metaphors about the way others reduce us to monoliths in memory as feelings fade.
On “Untitled,” which digs treacherously into the mechanics behind self-harm, Furman crafts some of her strongest lines yet (“If I find an entrance, is my destination far?/Too long I spent pretending that my body is its parts”). Some songwriters shine through brevity, and others spin extended yarns like weavers; Furman belongs to the latter group, and across this record she demonstrates that ability handily.
Beaches’ conclusion, the desolate “Epilogue,” lays down a curious conceit. On it, Furman lands on an ultimatum, the same one most everyone reaches around their early twenties. To be that age, commonly, is to meet the crossroads between an infinity of unrealized possibilities and the gradual reality that every day sees another cut thread, another closed door.
Faced with that reality, too many of us foolishly choose death over the remaining potential that, in the moment, we can’t see within ourselves. But Furman sees it, and in kind she acknowledges the growth she has yet to endure and the creeping enigma of her future. The track fades to noise, then to silence, then fades back in on repeat as “Swim” gives her, and the rest of us, the answer she’s looking for: “I don’t remember learning how to swim…But I know that I have stayed afloat.”
Beaches is out today, March 25th, 2022. You can catch out live session with Bel here.