David Bazan is the greatest Christian songwriter of his
generation. This remains true in spite of him no longer being a
Christian. Even now his reflections and critiques of Christianity are
more powerful than the vast majority of believing artists.
His faith, or lack thereof, has formed the thematic core of his work
throughout his career. Bazan cannot (or will not) move on the from the
topic. This is fine by me as a listener.
Yet his music is a lot more than his faith. It is beautifully written,
brilliantly executed. I love Bazan's songs; I sing along. In this
spirit I am embarking on this piece. It is not a review, per se, but a
In his early role as a Christian indie artist, Bazan was perhaps best
known for being "edgy." Bazan's "Christian" band Pedro the Lion's
first E.P. Whole was about drug addiction, after all. He continued
to push the envelope in addressing themes of sex, infidelity,
loneliness, suicide, corruption, murder and doubt. And then to make his
edginess double-bladed, he liked to perform old hymns.
The aforementioned themes were virtually absent from any contemporary
Christian music, which is almost always vacuous and expressed in empty
positivity. For young Christians like me who themselves liked to think
of themselves as "edgy", this produced an immediate and intense
affection for Bazan's music.
At last there was a voice of honesty in Christian culture! Honesty is
in some sense the central task of art: to let an unflinching eye gaze
upon a subject, and to render it into a new medium. In pop Christian
music the medium is whitewash.
I should not say that Bazan was alone as a Christian artist. There are
other artists, other favorites of mine, who worked at the same task by
degrees. However in my estimation, Bazan fulfilled the role
best. Perhaps too well.
It seems inevitable in retrospect that this envelope-pushing would
lead to Bazan's exiting the faith. With each new album, the edge was
being pushed further and further, until Achilles' Heel, the last
under the Pedro the Lion moniker, led right to the border:
Who shall I blame
For this sweet and heavy trouble
For every stupid struggle
I don't know
I could buy you a drink
I could tell you all about it
I could tell you why I doubt it
And why I still believe it
And why I need it
And what the Pharisees don't see
But more on that later.
Winners Never Quit
My favorite album of Bazan's is Pedro the Lion's Winners Never
Quit. It is only 8 tracks and about forty minutes long, but it packs
a big punch. The album relates the story of a corrupt politician and
his loser brother. Spoiler alert: the politician kills his wife
and then himself after she uncovers his bid to steal an election, and
the brother survives to have a second chance. You know, good wholesome
Briefly: this album is a masterpiece.
First, the music. I love the simple orchestration, and I love the way
this simple combo was recorded. Clearly articulated, I feel like I can
picture a live band playing the music. Yet Bazan did a good job not
letting the simple kit limit the range of sound. On the contrary: we
hear folk guitar, vintage indie rock, an ethereal ballad, and some
more aggressive fare. They are all heard distinctly, and match the
voice of the lyrics.
More important than the production, however, is the
composition. Bazan's use of recurring motifs sprinkled through the
songs bring make a coherent whole of the album. The listener hears an
echo of a previous tune (with which I am obliged to sing the lyrics,
being like that). These lead to a thematic tightness which is
emphasized in the music, not in spite of it.
In addition, Bazan employs a number of tropes to underline the lyrics
to great effect - e.g. "now that's the sort of smack that leaves a
bruise" followed by accented attack, evoking the same.
Bazan's music is always good, but I feel like Winners Never Quit is
his best example of music being an integral part of the story telling.
Lyrics are the other side of that coin, and here Bazan excels as
well. It is a short album and he has a big story to tell, so he has to
be economical. It feels cliche to say "show, don't tell" regarding the
literary arts, but that is exactly how this album works. Consider the
My jail shoes on
The well-kept cemetery lawn
Two lines, nine words; but also: exposition, advancing the plot,
revealing the scene, and setting the emotional tone. I think the real
challenge in all of this is keeping the lyrics from sounding
over-wrought or pretentious.
Yes, Winners Never Quit: a joy to listen to; a joy to sing to
yourself; a joy to think upon. Do yourself a favor and have a
listen. In my opinion it is the best album of Bazan's career. Probably
not the best in each individual element, but the best complete
Before commenting on Bazan's religious metamorphosis I wish to bring
attention to his musical collaborations outside his own
projects. Pedro the Lion and Bazan's current band have always truly
been a one-man show. Bazan provides almost all of the creative inputs,
and his band plays with him on the road. But that doesn't make Bazan a
lone wolf by any stretch. He's making great music with friends, if
only in fairly limited doses.
Perhaps the most fruitful of all Bazan collaboration's is with
T.W. Walsh. Walsh was a touring member of Pedro the Lion and received
some writing credits on Achilles Heel. But more exciting for me was
Bazan and Walsh's synth-and-drums project Headphones. The
orchestration was a great vehicle for some fresh songs from Bazan. My
favorite was "I Never Wanted You" which starts out as cruel parting
shot in a breakup but is revealed to be the desperate deflection of a
More recently Bazan has made an album in a new group - Overseas. It is
not clear to me what the future of this collaboration will be, but it
was interesting to listen to Bazan participating as a member of an
enterprise. You can definitely hear his influence (especially in the
songs for which he provides vocals), but it is not dominating.
To end the list of collaborations I have saved Bazan's work with Jason
Martin of Starflyer 59. I hold a great affection for Martin (and
probably should commit a post to him someday). It was at a Starflyer
show that I first heard Bazan play. He was touring in support of
Control, the follow-up album to Winners Never Quit. I stood
riveted throughout his performance, even overcoming my initial
annoyance that Martin had flipped the bill and let Pedro the Lion
So two of my favorite bands sometimes toured together - bonus! But my
joy at this collaboration was fulfilled to an even greater degree when
Martin and Bazan started making music together. This culminated with a
few songs being published of their direct cooperation:
- "Broken Arm" on the Starflyer 59 box set Ghosts of the Past
- "Lost My Shape" - the same lyrics as "Broken Arm" but different
music on Bazan's Curse Your Branches
- "Messes" - the same music as "Broken Arm" but different lyrics on
Bazan's Strange Negotiations
- "Eating Paper" on Strange Negotiations
I hope that someday Martin and Bazan will retire to leisure and be
able to make music with each other as often as they please. And Bazan
very well may lead me to another favorite musician through his future
Bazan has definitely affirmed his exit from the church in
interviews. In following his history of musical releases, it is not
exactly clear which album is his last "Christian" one. I know many
Christian listeners regarded Control as the final straw - here Bazan
violated sacred taboos against curse words and explicit lyrics. And
there was really no doubt by Strange Negotiations, where Bazan put a
semi-nude woman on the album art, I think, to send a very clear
I look squarely at Curse Your Branches as the conversion - not of
the artist himself, but of the thematic core of his music. This is
what I like to call the "God and alcohol" album, where each song seems
to wrestle with one or the other, until the final cut "In Stitches",
which handles both:
I need no other memory
Of the bits of me I left
When all this lethal drinking
Is to hopefully forget about you
And it is in this same song that teases the listeners:
I might as well admit it
Like I even have a choice
The crew have killed the captain
But they still can hear his voice
There's doubt in doubt.
Of course Bazan shuts the door again in the final verse, and the song
ends in an unsettled fashion. But that is what the listeners love to
Incidentally, Bazan's newest music featured on his website is still
dealing with Christian themes:
I was trembling with goose-flesh
The first time I prayed to speak in tongues
And so on. So the conversion is over, but the conversation is not.
If I look up and the sky's not there...
Did Bazan take believers with him? This seems to be the biggest charge
levied against him. It is one thing for a grown man to decide to
leave the faith. But it is quite another for an influential musician
with an impressionable (mostly younger) audience to do so.
Or, another way to ask: will I let my kids listen to him? Of course
they won't want to listen to anything dad does, but hypothetically
speaking. Yes, I think so, when they are a certain age. I want them to
be able to face tough questions and be stimulated by ideas which are
not necessarily "safe" by the standards of Christian culture. However,
I will of course at all times accompany that with voices "on the other
side," as it were.
That's my recollection of David Bazan for you. Lover of his music,
stung but not scandalized by his conversion, thankful for him sharing