- EYE OPENER: David Bazan's latest album is in stark contrast to his earlier work.
With an upbringing in the Assembly of God church, a degree in religion and philosophy from an affiliated Bible college and ears innocent of secular music until the age of 15, David Bazan's path as a distinguished, celebrated singer-songwriter has defied any semblance of reasonable expectation.
For 11 years, Bazan was the core member and principal songwriter of Pedro the Lion, a gentle, melancholic project carried by his soft baritone vocals and literate takes on Biblical morality. Since its inception in 1995, he released four full-length albums and five EPs, all largely admired by both critical circles and Christian rock contingents — an infrequent consensus to say the least. Dismissing any label of "Christian rock," Bazan avoided anything resembling musical proselytizing, instead exploring complex themes of social justice and political hypocrisy as viewed through his ever-present, seemingly unshakeable spiritual lens.
Yet as his music progressed, it began to reflect — with often uncomfortable intimacy —an increasingly tumultuous relationship to his religion and an outwardly vitriolic attitude towards many in the mainstream Christian culture that embraced him. The songs became musical Cleansings of the Temple: frustrated and exhausted with moments of explicit anger, not to mention hints of his major disillusion to come.
Before long, the beloved, de facto head of religious indie rock now was tearing into crowds with songs like 2004's "Foregone Conclusion," in which he sings "you were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord/to hear the voice of the Spirit begging you to shut the fuck up."
As his spiritual confusion grew, so did his notoriously erratic behavior. While unapologetic for his filthy mouth and his tendency toward the bottle, Bazan found himself a legend in indie rock lore when security at the 2005 Cornerstone Festival (a stringently booze-free Christian music event) bounced their own headliner in for stumbling about the grounds shit-faced, slugging vodka from a milk jug. Months after, Pedro the Lion disbanded.
Four years later, the provocateur is back and, for many of his religious fans who spent years as devotees, the news isn't good. His newest album, "Curse Your Branches" is a harrowing account of a life-long believer's loss of faith and a formal surrender of a hard-fought battle against atheism and agnosticism. It's an existential divorce album, heartbreaking regardless of one's religious belief. With it, the more disillusioned of his fanbase now view him as an apostate at best and a heretic at worst.
In "When We Fell," he addresses salvation, damnation and the "threat of Hell ... over [his] head," directly presenting God with questions like "What am I afraid of/whom did I betray/in what medieval kingdom does justice work this way?" It's the sound of desperation, a man grasping for straws, unwilling to let a lifetime of belief and years invested into the study of faith and religion go to waste, all the while aware of the futility in his attempts to keep it alive.
He even splays open his last few years at home in song, wrestling with a drinking problem only exacerbated by his spiritual devastation. This, all the while trying to act as a husband to his still-religious wife and as a dedicated father to a young daughter, whom he foresees, terrifyingly, as a drunk 23-year old, behind a wheel, killing herself and someone's mother in "Please, Baby, Please."
It's stark, unflinching stuff, but deftly carves a line between gorgeous, catchy and gut-wrenching. Regardless, it's the best thing David Bazan's ever done and certainly the bravest.
"Curse Your Branches" is a hugely important landmark in the ongoing discussion of religion in music. Bob Dylan, Jeremy Enigk and other songwriters have lucidly employed their conversions to Christianity in triumphant song, but this, Bazan's unfiltered, defeated document of a slow conversion away, is mournful, but important and, truly, one of a kind.
David Bazan appears at Juanita's this Saturday, June 19, alongside mewithoutYou and Rubik.