David Bazan Curse Your Branches

[Barsuk; 2009]

Styles: indie rock, pop
Others: Randy Newman, American Music Club, Low

For more than a few listeners, those of us cloistered deep in our youth groups and Bible studies, David Bazan, better known as the songwriter behind Pedro the Lion’s rotating cast of players, was a lot more than a fairly popular indie songwriter and occasional Pitchfork punchline. He was a rare kind of thing, the kind of artist who truly, deeply connected with his audience, whose early records burned with slow-core intensity while hauntingly combining folk pop with reverent but cautious church hymns.

With his pair of concept records-cum-morality plays, Winners Never Quit and Control, Bazan began tucking his spirituality into overarching plots, illustrating with murder and politics a kind of faith that could stand up to tyranny of the ever encroaching Bush-era gospel. Many of Bazan’s listeners may very well have thought God was speaking to them through those albums, but the hushed tones weren’t saying anything like the clichéd ideas spouted by Fox News correspondents and mega-church spokesmen. It wasn’t just the dirty words or the fact that Bazan liked beer that made him seem like a rebel; here was a faith that could stand up to an ugly world, that could hold its own against candid, damning questions and doubts. The guy even held Q&A sessions at his gigs in bars and dingy rock clubs.

Bazan’s last proper album, 2005’s Achilles Heel, featured a lion dying on the record sleeve, and it was a telling image. The band had solidified into a pair, Bazan and multi-instrumentalist/songwriter TW Walsh. The record sounded more lush than anything that preceded it, at once confusing and compelling, a darkly funny rumination on alcohol, politics, and Kierkegaardian compromise. The record’s release and subsequent touring proved to be a defining moment for the band, as the group played out to large, enthusiastic crowds, but it ultimately signaled the end of the Pedro the Lion brand. Bazan’s own website sums it up: “David’s drinking starts to become a problem and he begins losing the plot.” Following a lackluster synth-pop record as Headphones, Bazan announced his intentions to scrap the Pedro the Lion moniker.

The first thing Curse Your Branches, Bazan’s debut full-length under his name, makes apparent, is how the years following his solo debut in 2006, the Fewer Moving Parts EP, have reinvigorated him. Whereas that EP sounded rushed, tired, and baited, with Bazan lashing out at music critics, his former bandmates, and his fans all at once, Curse Your Branches boldly stands out as Bazan’s most engaging record yet. It bears little resemblance to the songwriter whose early records mostly contained a single, undistorted electric guitar, bass, and stripped drum kit. The album is awash in texture, mining the best elements of the Headphones with bubbly keys bouncing against gorgeous multi-layered harmonies. “Bearing Witness” owes a heavy debt to the erudite AOR pop of former tour-mates Crystal Skulls (no surprise -- several of the Skulls make appearances), while the title track pushes things into classic singer-songwriter territory, recalling mavericks like Warren Zevon or Randy Newman in its tone.

While Bazan’s never been a shabby drummer, here he’s positively stunning, with tracks “Bless This Mess” and the cartoonish and perfectly lovable “When We Fell” trucking along with heavy pop abandon. “Please, Baby, Please,” first heard as the spartan B-side to the “American Flags” single released digitally late last year, has taken on a bold shape, with skittering percussion and tropical guitars that wouldn’t be out of place on Graceland. Other tracks explore airier, more orchestrated terrain: “Hard to Be,” “Lost My Shape,” and the devastating closer “In Stitches” employ lush beds of sound under Bazan’s vocals, which have grown increasingly more expressive with each release. When Bazan grasps for the high notes, like he does with “In Stitches,” he approaches Thom Yorke-like tension and pulls it off like a flawless showman.

Lyrically, Bazan seems cursed with a savage honesty, staring down with uncomfortable honesty his alcoholism, his discarded faith, and how both effect his wife and daughter. "You used to sound like a prophet/ Everyone wanted to know/ How you could tell the truth without losing that soft glow/ But now you feel like a salesman, closing another deal," he sings on “Lost My Shape,” addressing his past with the Christian music scene, one that came to a fairly cataclysmic end, getting booted out of Cornerstone Festival in 2005 with a milk jug of vodka in hand. The pep of Curse Your Branches sits under remarkably uncomfortable images: In “Please, Baby, Please” he imagines his daughter at age 23, having just killed a mother of three while driving drunk; the title cut describes dreams in which “every hired gun” he’s ever fired takes turns making love to his wife.

Elsewhere, he’s fairly violent in his attack of the concept of God. “When We Fell” asks if humans were simply designed to fail as a race and addresses his mother’s faith with the line, "If my mother cries when I tell her what I have uncovered/ Then I hope she remembers she taught me to follow my heart/ And if you bully her like you’ve done me with fear of damnation/ Then I hope she sees you for what you are." “In Stitches” is even harsher: "When Job asked you the question/ You responded who are you/ To challenge your creator/ Well if that one part is true/ It makes you sound defensive/ Like you had not thought it through/ Enough to have any answer/ Or you might have bit off more than you could chew." The questioning faithfulness of Bazan’s former records seems to have yielded a strange outcome; Bazan doesn’t believe in God, and if God exists, Bazan doesn’t really like him.

Of course that kind of idea is far too narrow. Curse Your Branches is a complex, moving testament to agnosticism. The beautiful, tragic-comedy aspect of Bazan’s unbelief is that he’s haunted by the ghosts of his former convictions. In his first-person songs, he’s singing to an idea that has at points sustained him, perhaps as often as it has punished him. Bazan the narrator sings "All this lethal drinking/ Is to hopefully forget about you," and on “long walks with his daughter,” struggles to deny a higher power. “Heavy Breath” asks, "If no heavy breath blew up these lungs/ While dirt and wet spit hung a ghost in the air/ Well we’re still here" with kind of reverence, while the opening song, “Hard to Be” found him mocking the Genesis account.

Perhaps the most telling line present comes from the title track: "Why are some hellbent on there being an answer, when some are quite content to answer I don’t know?" With this idea, Bazan’s burden becomes clear. He’d probably like very much to disregard all the heavy questions, but he isn’t able to, singing on Control’s morbid closer, "Rejoice," "Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everything was meaningless/ But everything is so meaningful/ And most everything turns to shit."

Bazan’s greatest strength as an artist is his willingness to wrestle in public, to state out loud his unrelenting doubts, to not only allow contradictions in his art, but to celebrate and chase them. His records have always placed glimmers of redemption into the mix, but Curse Your Branches tucks it away the best, so faint it’s almost easy to miss. In the most upbeat song on the album, Bazan tells "Let go of what you know and honor what exists, son, that’s what bearing witness is." Bazan has built his career on the merit of his honesty, and Curse Your Branches finds him exerting that idea more forcefully than ever before, creating a record that beautifully, paradoxically, and soulfully explores the beauty and strife of admitting “I don’t know.”

1. Hard To Be
2. Bless This Mess
3. Please, Baby, Please
4. Curse Your Branches
5. Harmless Sparks
6. When We Fell
7. Lost My Shape
8. Bearing Witness
9. Heavy Breath
10. In Stitches

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