It’s not like he’s a great singer, but David Bazan certainly knows his voice. On Strange Negotiations, Bazan’s second solo album, he mostly sounds world-weary. There’s an edge in his throat and absolutely zero BS in his straightforward delivery of lines like “You’re a goddamn fool and I love you.” Expression and emotion seem afterthoughts. He sounds like your best friend’s cool older brother, willing to shepherd you through life’s vagaries and uncertainties and bummers, as long as he doesn’t have to get off the couch.
You wouldn’t expect to find sheer physical beauty in such a voice, but it’s there. Throughout Negotiations, Bazan’s vocal honk works some inexplicable sonic alchemy with the melodies and the band. His tunes have long, winding contours, carrying on past the point where you’d expect them to resolve, and his voice negotiates these lines with finesse, even throwing in some heartening vibrato at the ends of phrases. The band is a plain old post-punk power trio, with bassist Andy Fitts and drummer Alex Westcoat accompanying Bazan’s dark riffs. This basic sound hardly varies at all, which is both good and bad. Give it this: Negotiations has an indelible sonic identity.
Unfortunately, the album’s sound is sometimes so constricted that the songs can’t breathe. Gone are the thick synths and pedal steel of Bazan’s last album, Curse Your Branches; Negotiations’ only sonic advantage is that Bazan isn’t drumming anymore. (He’s a little stiff.) Occasionally the band warms up their sound with a synth line, as on “Messes”; more often they simply sit back and play the songs. When they hit a locomotive groove like “Wolves at the Door”, they sound unstoppable. But when their groove sounds more like Aimee Mann, as on the colorless title track, they seem to be grinding to a halt.
But then there’s the lyrics. No matter how often Bazan seems to be running out of musical tricks, he keeps delivering stunning lines like “You’re making a list of all the negative side-effects that come with the shit you let yourself get away with”. I’m still not sure how he made that scan. That comes from the false prophet song “Level With Yourself”, in which the narrator has the courtesy to level with himself as well.
In fact, though there’s not a lot of Jesus on this album—Branches memorably detailed Bazan’s loss of faith—there are plenty of judgments. “People seem so confused when they’re caught with some bullshit” is the best. “You can’t be right about the future when you’re wrong about the past” might be a fortune cookie. The political screed “Wolves at the Door” is sort of like Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? set to music. Bazan gets away with such constructive criticism because he’s relatable—he calls his subjects “man” a lot—and because he’s equally hard on himself. Ultimately, though, the guy’s just got a way with words. I’d let him set me straight all day if he didn’t have so many slow songs.
David Bazan is no slouch. He’s touring extensively behind Strange Negotiations, both solo and with the band, and he financed the album by striking up a creative deal with his fans. He’s a hard worker and you can hear it in his music. Granted, that’s sometimes all you can hear, but even solid craftsmanship has its rewards.