By now, issues of Dave Bazan’s faith should really be beyond discussion — yeah, he’s a Christian. Yeah, sometimes he sings about it. However, whenever he does, it’s in a completely different way than most of his fellow “Christian Recording Artists” (a term which, incidentally, he abhors) approach the topic. Rather than sing the praises of God and the Church, Bazan is much more likely to question the motives of those who consider themselves faithful. He’s also equally likely to not address the topic at all.
Control is Bazan’s third full-length record under the Pedro moniker (he also has three EPs under his belt). Apart from its very earliest recordings, Pedro has been, for the most part, Bazan’s project. Sure, other musicians were brought in to lend a hand here and there, but it’s Bazan’s vision that shines through on everything emblazoned with the Pedro the Lion name. By now, you may have heard that Control is a much heavier, more “rock” effort than previous releases. This is definitely true (although several songs on last year’s Winners Never Quit were equally pounding); there are only a few moments of musical tranquility to be had here. Also in contrast to previous releases (although, once again, Winners Never Quit pointed the way towards this), Bazan seems to have abandoned all hope for the human race. The tone of these songs is universally bitter, pessimistic and cynical. In fact, my main problem with Control is that it finds Bazan wallowing so completely in the dark side of the human psyche that it becomes stifling after awhile. In fact, Control reminds me of a movie that leaves the viewer with no one to empathize with, because every character is equally nasty and hateable. Tellingly, the only song on the record possessing an even slightly positive outlook, the bittersweet “Progress” (which features one of my favorite Bazan lines ever — “Your father drank a little / You’re on liver number two”), is actually an older song that was originally released on 2000’s EP of the same name (although it was titled “April 6, 2039” there).
Control starts out with the slow, plodding “Options”, which hearkens back to the Pedro sound of old. Over a drumbeat and single-note guitar line that could have been nicked from Death Cab for Cutie’s first record, Bazan intones lines like “I could never divorce you / Without a good reason / And though I may never have to / It’s good to have options / But for now I need you.” Later in the song, the protagonist admits that he didn’t actually utter those words, and blames the failure of communication. “But it was only in my head / Because no one ever says / What they really mean to say / When there’s so much at stake.” Then, the final blow is dealt: “So I told her I loved her / And she told me she loved me / And I mostly believed her / And she mostly believed me.” Ouch!
From there, we move on to “Rapture”, a rockin’, rather graphic tale of adultery: “This is how we multiply / Pity that it’s not my wife / The friction of skin / The trembling sigh.” Bazan is unflinching in his description of the act: “The sheets and the sweat / The seed and the spill / The bitter pill yet undiscovered.” “Rapture” continues a theme, begun in a much more innocent fashion with “Options”, of a marriage gone horribly wrong. As Winners Never Quit was a (slightly heavy-handed) parable of two wayward brothers, and touched on themes like politics and murder, Control deals almost exclusively (with a few exceptions) with various takes on pleasures of the flesh.
The story culminates in “Rehearsal”, simultaneously one of the record’s heaviest and darkest songs. Bazan begins quite frankly, taking the role of the cuckolded wife: “It’s priceless when you say you have to work late / When we both know you’re at a motel.” The narrator quickly reveals her murderous intentions: “You know I always said that I would kill you / If I ever caught you stepping out / Now I see I did not know the half of / What hatred and revenge are all about . . . I guess I could be bigger / But I’d rather make you pay.” While the story Bazan tells is certainly chilling, especially considering the narrator’s admission that both parties are merely playing into what amounts to a bad made-for-TV-movie, the music that he chooses to accompany this harrowing scenario feels rather musclebound, like he’s trying just a bit too hard to rock out. The guitars spit out dissonant chord shards while the drums are much more busy and frantic than necessary, and Bazan’s sleepy voice sounds a bit out of place amongst all the violent instrumentation (and storyline).
In contrast to many of the tracks that come before, “Priests/Paramedics” offers up a gorgeous vocal melody to go along with its pessimism, and winds up as the definite highlight of the record. The song finds Bazan spinning a tale of the aftermath of a murder (alluded to in the preceding songs, and thus fulfilling the made-for-TV-movie climax), and tying together, as the title implies, the roles of paramedics and priests. The song starts out with an ovation: “Paramedics brave and strong / Up before the break of dawn / Putting poker faces on / Broken bodies all day long.” In the next verse, Bazan paints a picture of paramedics in action at the scene of the crime: “Husband’s lost a lot of blood / He wakes up screaming ‘Oh my god / Am I gonna die? / Am I gonna die?’ / As they strapped his arms down to his sides / At times like these they’ve been taught to lie / Buddy, just calm down, you’ll be alright.” Later in the song, in direct contrast to the paramedics’ soothing fib, Bazan portrays a priest, giving the eulogy for the deceased husband. As with many characters in Bazan’s songs, the priest has practically given up on life itself, and wonders why so many struggle so hard to prolong the inevitable for just a few more hours, or days, or even years. “As the priest got up to speak / The assembly craved relief / But he himself had given up / So instead he offered up this bitter cup / You’re gonna die / We’re all gonna die / Could be 20 years, could be tonight.” The juxtaposition between the jaded paramedics who, all day, every day, deal with the dead and dying, and the priest who seems to have lost his faith (much like the character Bazan created in the song “Suspect Fled the Scene”, from his first full length, It’s Hard to Find a Friend), is quite thoughtful and introspective, and hearkens back to the best qualities of Bazan’s earlier work.
Unfortunately, “Priests/Paramedics” is the exception rather than the rule here. It’s not as if Control is anything approaching bad, it’s just that it feels a bit disjointed, and is an extremely depressing listen. Bazan proves that he’s still as ambitious as ever with his music, chronicling a sick relationship from the interchanging perspectives of husband and wife; however, this theme has been done before, and done better (I’m thinking specifically of Cursive’s brilliant Domestica, as harrowing a breakup-concept-album as you’re likely to find). Bazan is still a vital talent, even if he seems to increasingly be going for the easy answers rather than the insightful, thought-provoking work of his first few records. However, this is not notice to write him off entirely, just to hope that his outlook on life (or the one that he chooses to portray in his songwriting, at any rate) sweetens just a tad before he decides to head into the studio again.