Theological Round-Up: David Bazan
Last week marked the release of a new album, called Curse Your Branches, by former Pedro the Lion singer David Bazan– an album that was anticipated with seemingly little hype, but almost instantly became one of the most talked-about records of 2009– or at least, one of the most talked-about Christian records.
I say that with my tongue in my cheek, at least somewhat: Though Bazan has a long and rich history of expressing Christian perspective and wrestling with issues of faith in his lyrics, and has even been a favorite of the Christian rock festival Cornerstone, this new album marks an entirely new phase in his spiritual pilgrimage. Simply put, the album spells out, in no uncertain terms, a crisis of faith in which Bazan aggressively dismantles the doctrine of original sin, and places himself in a dialogue with the Divine that is both heated and full of doubt. So is it a Christian album? Depends on who you ask; many critics have called the album “agnostic,” while a few have defended it as being very much within a Christian tradition of questioning and struggle.
I’ll be honest: I’m not yet prepared to say very much about the album myself. Suffice to say, it’s a difficult listen, perhaps the toughest album I’ve heard in the last couple of years. Bazan’s lyrics are direct and honest enough that calling them “blunt” would be an understatement– “brutal” might be the more accurate term– and indeed, the album isn’t just about a crisis of faith, but about a man’s life falling apart, as Bazan also sings about his descent into alcoholism and domestic troubles. For its candor and its clarity, the album is riveting and very moving, but it’s also disquieting and, for me, uncomfortable. (I don’t mean that as a criticism, by the way.)
I am both intrigued and inspired, however, by the dialogue that the album has sparked– about faith, about doubt, about art. Mehan Jayasuriya, reviewing the album for PopMatters, writes that Bazan has rejected God– mostly:
During the album’s second half, Bazan finds a redemptive arc in the most unlikely of places—in the rejection, rather than embrace of God. “With the threat of Hell / Hanging over my head like a halo / I was made to believe in a couple of beautiful truths,” he sings with an easy cadence on “When We Fell”, backed up by a palm-muted guitar line and clattering percussion. Once these truths unravel, he finds himself liberated and eventually, discovers that he is finally at peace with himself. Empowered, he lashes out at pedophilic priests (who should have been “Making harmless sparks” with nuns, “Instead of breaking little boys’ hearts”), dogmatic evangelicals (“Bearing Witness”) and even the almighty himself, asking, “Did you push us when we fell?”
That’s not to say, however, that Bazan is completely out of the woods. His newfound agnosticism provides fertile ground for conflict in his Pentecostal family, testing his resolve and reinforcing his status as an outsider. “And my mother cries / When I tell her what I have discovered / And I hope she remembers / She taught me to follow my heart,” Bazan sings, before turning to address his father (it’s not made clear whether or not that “f” should be capitalized): “If you bully her like you’ve done me with fear of damnation / Then I hope she can see you for what you are.”
By the album’s close, Bazan’s confidence has clearly returned, though final number “In Stitches”, makes clear that there are battles yet to be fought. “My body bangs and twitches / As brown liquor wets my tongue / My fingers find the stitches / Firmly back and forth they run,” he sighs at the song’s outset, sounding both drunk and numb. As the first verse reaches its climax, Bazan arrives at a moment of self-realization: “When all this lethal drinking / Is to hopefully forget / About you.” The real kicker, however, comes at the song’s halfway point. “A shadow in the water / A whisper in the wind / On long walks with my daughter / Who is lately full of questions / About you.”
Jessica Hopper, in an excellent profile of Bazan, makes similar comments about the “fallen evangelical,” calling the album,
… a harrowing breakup record—except he’s dumping God, Jesus, and the evangelical life. It’s his first full-length solo album and also his most autobiographical effort: its drunken narratives, spasms of spiritual dissonance, and family tensions are all scenes from the recent past.
Hopper’s article is directly referenced by Paste Magazine, which doesn’t quite agree with Hopper’s characterization of Curse Your Branches as a “break-up album” with God.
There’s a quote from the Chicago Reader floating around that describes Curse Your Branches as a “breakup album” in which Bazan dumps God. And while Branches is certainly heartrending, it ain’t no Rumours. I wouldn’t claim that Bazan has given up on religion—he’s clearly in the middle of an ongoing conversation with God. In several songs, he addresses God in second-person, asking questions, making thoughtful accusations and articulating his grievances more clearly than ever.
“When you set the table / And when you chose the scale / Did you write a riddle / That you knew they would fail,” he asks. The whole thing plays out more like a therapy session than a breakup. I picture Bazan reclining on a couch, flipping through the Bible and pointing out parts that don’t add up, explaining why he feels betrayed and saying to God, “You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you?”
Paste interprets the album as being less a rejection of God, more a series of pointed spiritual inquiries.
Bazan’s album is called Curse Your Branches, and the title track’s chorus—“All fallen leaves should curse their branches / For not letting them decide where they should fall / And not letting them refuse to fall at all”—is a quick glimpse into a struggle with the idea of original sin. Opening track “Hard To Be” presents his thesis: “Wait just a minute / You expect me to believe / That all this misbehaving / Grew from one enchanted tree,” he sings, later asking us to “ponder the weight of an apple / Compared to the trouble we’re in.” It’s a perplexing ratio indeed, and Bazan spends most of the record explaining why he can’t reconcile the concept. It grows more personal when he references a drinking problem and a daughter who’s been asking questions about God. And the folksy “Please Baby Please”—in which an alcoholic calls his lover to beg for another drink—might be the closest Bazan has ever come to writing a love song.
Indeed, author David Dark– quoted in Hopper’s profile– says the album is very much part of a biblical tradition of witness-bearing to the realities of doubt and spiritual struggle:
If we are referring to the deep strains of complaint and prayers and tirades against conceptions of God in the Bible—yes, then in that way he’s in your Christian tradition.
Jennifer Doyle, meanwhile, doesn’t see much difference between Bazan’s faith now and on past albums.
David Bazan’s a rare songwriter. He’s one that can wear his spiritual leanings on his sleeve in his songs and not sound like a choirboy. He’s one that can find a way to sing about morality instead of spirituality. He’s a Christian songwriter for the well meaning atheists as well as the devout believers. For Bazan, faith isn’t a means to cull the chosen few from the Earth as judgment day approaches, but a means to building a better world, kingdom come or not.
“Hard to Be” opens Curse Your Branches, Bazan’s first proper solo full-length since breaking up Pedro the Lion in 2005, and puts Bazan’s beliefs firmly in focus, as he struggles with the difficulties of doing the right thing, while shrugging off passing responsibility onto original sin or human nature. It’s a cross we must all bear, so to speak, and he understands the burden better than most high-and-mighty preacher-men will ever. “Bearing Witness” calls believers to the carpet for paying lip-service to their faith’s tenements. “Bless This Mess” is a love-your-brother call for tolerance over dogma, and “Please, Baby, Please” injects sympathy into a tale of the fallen.
Which is all to say: Hearing Curse Your Branches is vital for anyone who cares about issues of faith and religious belief. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy or even enjoyable.