[30 August 2009]
“I’m not sure if you know this, but my relationship with Christ has changed pretty dramatically in the last few years.” That’s how David Bazan greeted former publicist Jessica Hopper upon seeing her for the first time in half a decade, according to Hopper’s excellent profile of Bazan, which ran recently in the Chicago Reader. This statement, which only hints at the spiritual and existential crisis that consumed Bazan for the better part of five years, serves as an equally appropriate introduction to his latest full-length, Curse Your Branches. Once hailed as Christian indie rock’s great crossover hope, Bazan, a newly minted agnostic, now finds himself estranged from the movement that he once led. Critics, meanwhile, never gave him his proper due, unfairly lumping him in with the emo and Christian rock movements and largely ignoring his non-traditional approach to writing from a Christian perspective. Despite his loyal following, Bazan has spent most of this decade in the wilderness—both personally and professionally.
Curse Your Branches should change all that. In many ways, the album marks a return to form for Bazan—it’s easily his best work since Pedro the Lion’s 2002 release Control. However, where Control took a bitingly cynical look at American life, Curse Your Branches turns its focus inward. Documenting Bazan’s struggles with faith, alcoholism and family life, the album is undoubtedly his most personal work to date.
Musically too, Curse Your Branches finds Bazan stretching out his legs. While he has been rightfully criticized in the past for leaning too heavily on fuzzed-out, midtempo guitar pop and stripped-down folk, there’s a surprising amount of variety to be found here, not to mention a great deal of depth. This fact is made quite clear from the outset, as opening number “Hard to Be” begins with a staccato piano melody, before a minimalist synth line, a steadily-strummed acoustic guitar and eventually, pounding drums flesh out the track. When Bazan enters, he provides us with a bit of theological background (“Once upon a garden / We were lovers with no clothes”) before interjecting with the doubtful rejoinder, “Wait just a minute / You expect me to believe / That all this misbehaving / Grew from one enchanted tree?” He goes further yet, pushing into the real substance of his doubt: “And helpless to fight it / We should all be satisfied / With this magical explanation / For why the living die / And why its hard to be / A decent human being.” Musically sophisticated yet melodically inviting, “Hard to Be” ably sets the stage for the nine tracks that follow.
Transforming the standard Bazan acoustic number into something far more fresh, “Please, Baby, Please”, employs a wobbly drum beat, tambourines and three-part vocal harmonies to stunning effect. Amid a sea of sunny melodies, Bazan delves into the alcoholism that accompanied his spiritual crisis, exploring the toll that his behavior took on his wife and child. “Two pairs of big blue eyes / Stare me down / Watch me fall,” he sings, his voice rich with affection, “What makes a man realize / That he’s about to lose it all?” In this case, a spoonful or sugar certainly does help the medicine go down.
It’s easy to see why Bazan chose to title this album Curse Your Branches—thematic conceits aside, the title track is easily one of the most devastating he’s ever penned. A spare, haunting ballad, the song finds Bazan recalling a recurring nightmare in which he is cuckolded (“Every hired gun / I’ve ever fired / Is making love to you / While I look on”), before arriving at the album’s central thesis: “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.” As he sings these lines, his voice strains to reach higher registers. It’s as if he’s hoping that his words will carry up toward the heavens.
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,” he sings, before launching into a full-throated falsetto, twisting that final “you” into a sound that’s at once celebratory and mournful.
From Bob Dylan to Jeremy Enigk, there’s a long tradition of rock and roll songwriters renouncing their wicked ways, finding God and then celebrating their newfound faith in song. Struggles with faith, however, are not nearly as well documented in the rock and roll tradition, especially not in the brutally honest manner that Bazan has chosen here. As personal as his crisis may have been, it’s clear that much of the burden was shared by the devout family who bore witness to his painful conversion—a fact that lends a very real weight to Bazan’s observations throughout the course of the album. David Bazan’s journey from Christian to skeptic clearly wasn’t easy, but in documenting the process in unflinching detail, he has managed to perform that rare form of alchemy in which only the great artists are well versed: he has transformed the ugly into something truly beautiful.