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 remembrance.
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 music.
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 following:
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 package.
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 heart-broken man.
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 perform last.
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 collaborations.
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 message.
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 hear.
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 his experiences.