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O Bazan, Where Art Thou?

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

"Winners Never Quit cover art"

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.

The Conversion

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.

We only have what we remember (music for July 2011)

It has been several years since I began listening to Me Without You. I must admit that at first I simply did not "get" their music. However as time went by I came to really appreciate the music, the lyrics, and Aaron Weiss' idiosyncratic delivery. Now It's All Crazy, etc. is one of my very favorite records. Acquiring a taste for Me Without You has led to my interest in Listener.

[][]"Talk music" is the genre label I most often hear associated with Listener. That probably is not the best descriptor, but it will do. Dan Smith's delivery is not sung, but it is nonetheless somewhat melodic. Most of all it is passionate, and that I can appreciate. I understand that many people will think that Listener makes Bob Dylan sound like a chorus of angels. But the "talk music" medium is part of the message: raw presentation of the story unadorned by vanities. Additionally the lyrics are top-notch. I have really appreciated what I have encountered so far. Check out Wooden Heart for a start.

Through a trial membership to an online music service I have finally checked out Bon Iver. The hype over the new album was ubiquitous in my circles of the internet, so I decided I must at least listen once. I really enjoyed both albums on the first hearing. Granted I am literally still on day one with Bon Iver, but I think I'll be sticking with them.


Is Death Cab learning to love?

Death Cab for Cutie has a new album out called Codes and Keys. After the release of their previous full-length album Narrow Stairs I alleged that Death Cab has a deficient view of love. However after digesting the new album for a bit, it seems that their tune is changing.

The most notable thing about this album is the conspicuous absence of a trademark Death Cab song: the one where love simply evaporates and two former mates inexplicably drift apart. For example, in "The Ice is Getting Thinner" on Narrow Stairs:

We're not the same, dear, as we used to be.
The seasons have changed and so have we.
There was little we could say, and even less we could do
To stop the ice from getting thinner under me and you.

But now lyricist Benjamin Gibbard is perhaps admitting that love is a verb, as in "Some Boys" on the new album:

Some boys are singing, some boys are singing the blues
Joylessly flinging with the girls that they're bringing to their rooms
And then leave when they're through
Some boys are sleeping, some boys are sleeping alone
Cause there's no one that's keeping them warm through evening
They know that they're on their own

Some boys don't know how to love

As in, it seems that the deficiency of love consists not in the nature of love, but in the character of the lover. So maybe Death Cab is growing up. As it happens, Gibbard got married since the last album came out. There also seems to be a new spark of optimism to overwhelm the dark themes of the last album. Previously, in "No Sunlight":

They disappeared at the same speed
The idealistic things I believed
The optimist died inside of me

Whereas now, in "Your are a Tourist":

When there's a burning in your heart
An endless yearning in your heart
Build it bigger than the sun
Let it grow, let it grow

How's that for a change? The lyrics aree much more listenable in Codes and Keys than the previous effort. It is no just blind, stupid optimism, however. It is an honest encounter with the fact that the sort of pessimistic attitude of Narrow Stairs is just not livable.

So I like the new album much better. The music is outstanding as well. It is an album you can learn to love.

Goodbye Hurricane

Switchfoot's albums Learning to Breathe, The Beautiful Letdown, Nothing is Sound and Oh Gravity are like Einstein's miracle year. It is remarkable to me that a band could put out so many quality albums in a row. And when you include Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman's solo project Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer(released just after), it is even more amazing. But then came Hello Hurricane.

The first thing I heard from the new album was on a television commercial promoting a mobile phone. Clearly there was an effort afoot to promote the mainstream commercial success of this album. Mainstream success is not always bad, but music which suits my taste rarely makes it through the filter of popular media. With the exception of The Beautiful Letdown, with its generically encouraging message, none of Switchfoot's material has passed through this filter. As it happens, The Beautiful Letdown is my least favorite album of those I listed above, and I think there is a strong correlation between the relative dislike and its commercial palatability.

With the television commercial as a prelude, I was sadly unsurprised to find that the lyrical content of the new album was bland. Previous albums had themes questioning politics, capitalism, and self-righteousness. But I did not find anything so heavy or interesting in the new album. As it happens, I have never much liked the seemingly random inclusion of "you look beautiful tonight" in song lyrics. It also feels to me like the musical style and lyrics (and vocal delivery of those lyrics) are conspicuously  inspired by U2.

Moreover, in cases where there was thematic affinity between Hello Hurricane and Foreman's solo project, I find that the presentation in the solo work is better. For example, in the celebrated genre of self-loathing, Jon Foreman sings thus:

How miserable I am
I feel like a fruit-picker who arrived here
After the harvest
There's nothing here at all
Nothing at all here that could placate my hunger
The godly people are all gone
There's not one honest soul left alive
Here on the planet
We're all murderers and thieves
Setting traps here for even our brothers

And both of our hands are equally skilled
At doing evil, equally skilled
At bribing the judges, equally skilled
At perverting justice
Both of our hands

But in Hello Hurricane we are met with

I've made a mess of me
I wanna get back the rest of me
I've made a mess of me
and I wanna spend the rest of my life alive!

There are a number of other places where the genius of the solo project songs are repackaged in inferior ways. And there seems to be a shortage of operative metaphors at Switchfoot HQ, because we see two tracks employing songs themselves: "Ooh your love is a symphony"; "Take what is left of me, make it a melody." But I think they felt that these songs would sell better.

So I guess I am trying to say they "sold out." But maybe the selling out did not work as intended. I do not know much about the music industry, but I do not think that the success of Hello Hurricane has been on a par with The Beautiful Letdown. I cannot help but wonder if as a result Switchfoot will abandon this commercially palatable style in favor of their former edginess. However, some promotional interviews from Jon Foreman made it sound like Hello Hurricane was the apogee of his artistic expression, so my hope may be in vain:

Talking about the songs leading up to the those that would become Switchfoot’s newest album “Hello Hurricane” Jon Foreman said this. “They didn’t feel like the type of the song you wanted to die singing. And for ‘Hello Hurricane’ that became the prerequisite for the song. If you’re not crying why are you singing it. If you don’t believe it with every ounce of you then there’s no point in singing it.”

I believed in the old songs.

Strange Negotiations

David Bazan is now David Bazan. That is, his new album Strange Negotiationsmarks the completion of his transition from Pedro the Lion. It is not just a change of moniker, but a change in ideology. Pedro the Lion was a "Christian" band, David Bazan is not.

This transition has been ongoing for some time. Bazan's lyrics were already "edgy" in the Pedro the Lion days. But since changing names Bazan's lyrical themes have become unpalatable to most of his former Christian fanbase. In spite of this, the subject matter of his previous album Curse Your Branches was theologically focused: it was his break-up with God album. As such it was still a Christian album of sorts. And Bazan was teasing his audience:

I might as well admit it / like I even have a choice / the crew have killed the captain / but they still can here is voice / a shadow on the water / a whisper in the wind / on long walks with my daughter / who is lately filled with questions about you

Therefore we Christians still had some obscure hope that maybe Bazan was some form of "Christian" artist still.

However Bazan seems determined to fully sever the link to his evangelical Christian roots with this new venture. I suspect this desire is behind some curious features of the new album. The album art includes a reflection of a woman's nude backside, and that is complemented by a Ouija board in the album booklet. The lyrics also have an occasional "god damn" for good measure. That should keep the evangelicals out.

As for the album itself, I do not have much to say. It is not unusual for Bazan's work to take some time to grow on me. However this album is not my favorite. The music is not as engaging as some other Bazan ventures, and the lyrical content is a bit soft in its impact. For example, I found the "Strange Negotiations" in the title track to not be particularly strange. Of particular note is the cut "Don't Change" sounds like it could have been left over from Pedro the Lion's The Only Reason I Feel Secure.

I'll put this record down for a while and come back to it at some point. However, I am not sure that Bazan holds the same interest for me as he once did. I'll probably remember Headphones and Fewer Moving Parts as the definitive post-Pedro projects of Bazan's. Since I've given a less-than-flattering review, I'll quote Bazan's "Selling Advertizing" from the latter:

You're so creative / with your reviews / of what other people do / how satisfying that must be for you