(Photo by Mehan)
Maybe it’s the music industry, maybe it’s something private, or maybe it’s just rebelling against his youth, but whatever sparked it, it seems like David Bazan’s transition from Doubting Thomas to agnostic is complete.
Through his poetry, Bazan has always wrestled with the church, it’s believers and it’s practices, and that’s what has drawn so many people to Pedro the Lion over the years. And whatever Christian-related content that drew people in, Bazan provided just enough antidote to keep those listeners in check.
The band’s first record was released in 1997 on the so-called Christian punk record label “Tooth and Nail” in 1997. The “Whole EP” (say it out loud a couple of times) begins with a song called “Nothing,” which introduces the listener to a man who embraces philosophy over morals and rules. At one point, he says “It’s just not true, that there’s only one way.”
The EP then goes on to that character developing a drug habit (“Fix”), trying to kick it (the excellent “Almost There”), then seeing a friend who overcame his addiction thanks to “Mr. Hole-fixing man” (“Whole”). That album concludes with “Lullaby,” which has become an anthem for modern Christian life. I love this song so much, that I’m going to include some of the lyrics here:
Sun shines, and leaves blow and my hope like autumn is turning brown.
I know it seems like I’m always falling down.
And it does not matter to me, although it seems like it should.
It’s because I know I’m understood, when I hear him say…
“Rest in me little David, and dry all your tears, you can lay down your armour and have no fear.
Cause I’m always here when you’re tired of running, and I’m all the strength that you need.”
“Lullaby” is followed by an instrumental, “Hymn,” and it’s all over. Ever since I first heard this song almost 10 years ago, I still need that instrumental track to fully recover from “Lullaby.” Personally, I imagine the “David” here as King David, and how he would converse with God, but it’s easy to hear this and believe you are listening to some of David Bazan’s most honest, powerful and uplifting songs ever.
But ever since “Whole EP,” David has been fighting against that sentiment as hard as he can… I’ve read that in the past, he’d be playing his songs and people would be having intense emotional reactions, while he wasn’t feeling anything, and was uncomfortable with manipulating people like that.
With his next record, “It’s Hard to Find a Friend,” you can hear that instead of embracing this kind of cathartic narrative, he instead explores new stories and characters, like the memorable father and son exchange in “Big Trucks,” the man who finds out his girlfriend has been cheating on him in “Bad Diary Days,” and the guy who has a problem with natural beauty in “When They Really Get To Know You They Will Run.” But there’s still religious material as well, like “Of Minor Prophets and Their Prostitute Wives,” a retelling of the obscure Old Testament book Hosea. Then finally, the album’s finest moment, “Secret of the Easy Yoke,” featuring a man who feels unmoved and annoyed by his friends and their seemingly perfect devotion. However, by the end of the song he’s turned to “Peace be still,” a mantra of simple confirmation and encouragement.
(Yes, there was “Promise” originally at the end of this record, but supposedly Bazan was told to add an uplifting song to the end of the record, and on the re-release in 2001 was left off.)
In his next record, the EP entitled “The Only Reason I Feel Secure (Is That I’m Validated By My Peers)” he returned to the more introspective side of his writing, peaking with a beautiful rendition of “Be Thou My Vision.” From there things turned rather dark, with the warning of the powers of sex and power and murder in “Winners Never Quit,” a story of two brothers: the “good” Christian who is secretly bad (and murders his wife then commits suicide), and his “bad” Christian brother who is arrested while driving drunk and goes to jail. “Bad Things To Such Good People,” the final song from the brother in jail, describes the arrogance of his father and contains a somewhat controversial line: “All the while, the good Lord smiles and looks the other way.” You could interpret it as the Lord is simply forgiving both the father and the son in jail of their sins, or you could also look at it as the Lord is simply letting chaos reign in their life and doing nothing about it. (Starting to sound a little like what Bazan is saying in “Curse Your Branches,” right?)
Actually, for a good statement of where Bazan was at around the time of “Winners Never Quit,” check out this great interview here.
Then there’s the amazing rock record, “Control,” easily Bazan’s most distressing record, which tackles infidelity, global warming and modernization. While he was merely baiting his Christian listeners in “Winners Never Quit,” in this record he finally tells them to buzz off with “Rapture,” a song about an adulterous couple having dirty motel room sex and one screams out “Oh my sweet rapture, I hear Jesus and the angels singing Hallelujah, calling in me to enter the promised land.” Later in “Priests and Paramedics,” a priest at a funeral for the adulterous man gives his people gather a bitter pill: “You’re gonna die. We’re all gonna die. Could be twenty years, could be tonight. And lately I have been wondering why we go to so much trouble to postpone the unavoidable and prolong the pain of being alive.”
“Control” then adds a question mark in it’s oft-debated finale, “Rejoice,” which says “Wouldn’t it be so wonderful if everything were meaningless. But everything is so meaningful and most everything turns to shit. Rejoice.”
Following that, David seems content to slowly go darker and more skeptical, all kind of staying in this ambiguous Christian world viewpoint, like on “Achilles Heel” and the synth-only record, “The Headphones,” throwing in the occasional four or seven letter world to rankle his critics.
However, with his first full album under his own name, I feel like things are a lot different. Things are personal again, however, it seems like the sarcasm has been replaced with vitriol and anger. “Hard to Be” kicks things off with an indictment of the creation story as a Christian’s excuse for misbehaviour, and ends with his graduation from “believer” to “non-believer.” There’s “Bless this Mess,” which either celebrates the inversion of popular Christian parables (the wheat and the chaff, the candle under a bushel), or celebrates those who flaunt them. “Harmless Sparks” takes on pedophile priests and inserts a confession of his own doubt and it again conflicts with his family. “When We Fell” indicts the threat of Hell as motivation for belief. In “Bearing Witness” he’s sick of “making the pieces fit” and in “Heavy Breath” he reassures his God-fearing friends that life without him isn’t any different.
The album ends with “In Stitches,” which instead of reaffirming anything, seems to confirm David’s agnostic attitude. He’s still talking to his God, but like the entire album all along, it’s in the tone of talking to someone who has been betrayed by an ex-lover. (A common description of “Curse Your Branches” is that it’s David Bazan’s “break up album” with God).
I’ve been thinking about it, and to me, from a lyrical point of view, it seems like David has finally turned into the character he voiced in “Nothing” way back in 1997 on the “Whole EP.” Happier to go his own his own way, and giving up the struggle of belief.
I’ll admit that I don’t know David personally, and I don’t what’s really in his heart. For all I know that this is just a natural progression of his writing, and his relationship with God is his own business, so I don’t want to come across as judging him for what he’s chosen to believe. I don’t even want to go into the whole alcoholism thing either, despite it being such a large presence in his songs, because again, I don’t need to be judgmental of that (especially when I see my own struggle with that as well).
I guess after being such an intense fan, and hanging on much longer than a lot of my other Christian brothers, I don’t think I can hold David’s songs as close as I once did. I’m still totally in awe of his talent, and I’ve been forever changed by his writing, but “Curse Your Branches” seems to be the album at which when I have to keep his music out of reaching distance. It’s not enough that I can recognize that I disagree with much of what he has to say, because I’ve been to all the places he visits here. I personally want to move past those places, so while I appreciate and respect what he’s done, I can’t dwell in it like other albums he’s done.
However, part of me also knows that if I give up on him now, I might miss out on him coming around to the final “Lullaby” chapter in his records, which is just a too glorious prospect. Johnny Cash and Mike Knott worked in similar circles, so anything is possible, right?
(As a post-script, I know there’s so much more I could talk about here too, like the Christmas EPs, his relationships with other “Christian” artists like Damien Jurado, but this is sprawling enough already).
(As another post-script, is that I wanted to note that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform many times over the years: Opening for Low at Lee’s Palace, rocking out the Horseshoe a couple times with TW Walsh, playing Buffalo with Starflyer 59, another Buffalo set done completely solo at the Mohawk, a solo show at the Music Gallery, a solo show in Seattle at the Crocodile Cafe with Damien Jurado and Ben Gibbard, and his return to Lee’s Palace with a full band in tour for “Curse Your Branches.” Whatever he does, I’ll still continue to come out to the shows, because they are always powerful experiences.)
(As one final post-script, I have to point out something funny Matt McKechnie wrote about me on his blog, taken from the last Bazan show at Lee’s, “I saw my friend Tyrone (of Silver Speakers) standing stage left with the look of an awed child meeting Santa Claus.”)