David Bazan is capable of making misery seem bearable. Not so on this third long-player where he falls into the mire and can't get unstuck.
For his third full-length solo release David Bazan has culled the 10 best cuts from the extremely limited 7” singles series named Bazan Monthly. The intention? To create a cohesive album that sings from end to end. One would expect nothing less from Bazan, especially after the highly-regarded Curse Your Branches and Strange Negotiations. But Blanco is not those albums. It’s a rare middling effort in a career marked by impeccable writing and the ability to craft songs that speak to the listener directly, transparently, and with an honesty that sears the soul.
He’s sounded unhappy before. But that unhappiness has usually been accompanied by some kind of anger. There’s been lights in the darkest of corners, a little bit of hope for listeners to cling to. Here, there’s no such thing. In the worst moments he sounds miserable, even resigned. The heavy electronic settings don’t help.
After a couple of perky, uplifting soundwaves at the start of “Both Hands” and the almost positive throbs of “Oblivion”, the record falls into a pattern of listlessness. The country-ish “Kept Secrets” dies on the vine, the singer sounding incapable of lifting whatever weight has landed on his shoulders. The song meanders to its middle and an unremarkable end. There’s no fight left in the dog come those final moments, and by the half-finished “With You”, it becomes difficult to trudge onward.
The pieces have an unfinished quality to them, as though they’re demos for something greater, something that might touch on past glory. The trouble is that Bazan doesn’t seem capable of finding his way out. “Teardrops” manages a temporary hold on resolve, as the specter of the artist we’ve loved all along emerges from beneath the fog, raising the flag of the disaffected one more time. It’s fitting for a song about human frailties, about the realization that we are not alone. He conveys these affirmations with clear-eyed sincerity. It feels like a rally.
But that sense of overcoming the bummer set we’ve drifted into proves short-lived. The down tempo drone of “Over Again” is almost too much to bear, as though one has swallowed a handful of motion sickness pills only to spend the night sitting on the couch, gazing at the world through glacial eyes. “Little Landslide” at least has a delightfully unvarnished feel. It’s homespun and lo-fi, the kind of thing Robert Pollard tracks before his morning coffee and waking toke. In a different setting, on a different album it would be sheer delight. Here, it’s minor relief.
“Little Motor” is a portrait of depression and despair that wants to break from its heavy settings and the synth settings that weigh it down. It too becomes trapped under the weight of electronics and a voice that seems to sense little use in committing to fighting the futile fight against the dying of the light.
If you can get beyond any of that and appreciate the record for the beautiful words that Bazan manages to craft to accompany the turgid and torpid music, you’re one step beyond the majority.
Maybe Bazan can find it in his heart to recut some of the better pieces here at some point, cast them as something with more zeal, more vigor, something that feels more alive. In the meantime, feel free to return to your well-worn copy of Curse Your Branches. If you don’t already have that, it may be time you investigate.