Curse Your Branches is out Sept. 1 on Barsuk. David Bazan plays a live streaming show today at 5 p.m.
Curse Your Branches
(Barsuk Records) Sept. 1
To a non-believer--or to fans that are unfamiliar with the Evangelical beliefs that defined the first 30 years of David Bazan's life--Curse Your Branches sounds like it was written by a man who has made up his mind about God. Out Sept. 1 on Barsuk, the album is Bazan's first full-length in five years and his first true solo album since the break-up of Pedro the Lion. Curse Your Branches is an autobiographical look at Bazan's fall from the Christian grace that launched his career, and the mournful-voiced musician is not holding back. The opening track, "Hard to Be," calls out the book of Genesis and the very idea of original sin as bullshit: "Wait just a minute/ you expect me to believe/ that all this misbehaving grew from one enchanted tree?" Of Curse Your Branches' 10 songs, all but one (the catchy and pop-tinged "Please, Baby, Please") mention either God or Biblical myth, often criticizing and challenging some of the most well-known contradictions in Christianity.
At times, it sounds like Bazan outright renounces God. On "When We Fell"--perhaps the album's most clear statement of Bazan's new beliefs--he credits God with causing the fall of man: "You knew what would happen/ and made us just the same/ And you, my Lord, can take the blame." On "In Stitches," he calls God's treatment of the ever-suffering Job "defensive."It makes sense that, at some point, religion would become nonsensical to Bazan--or that he'd get "sick and tired of trying to make the pieces fit," as he sings on "Bearing Witness." If his songs from Pedro the Lion--those mellow, guitar-driven metaphors about trying to trust and understand God--are any example, he is a thinking man. And for Christians, cognitive dissonance is a thorn in the proverbial lion's paw.
How do you make sense of a God that gives us free will to make our own decisions, but then punishes us when we choose wrong, commit sins, and ultimately fail? Usually, this dissonance is explained away through faith: it's normal to question, but you simply have to believe that God has a plan that will someday explain all the contradictions and confusion.
For nearly a decade, this reasoning worked for David Bazan. Not long after graduating from Bible college, the Seattle singer-songwriter became the poster child for Christian indie rockers as the frontman for Pedro the Lion. Back then, he knew what he believed. But a few years ago, Christian cognitive dissonance became too much for him. He quit his band, started drinking heavily, and released one solo EP, Fewer Moving Parts, under his own name. He questioned not only his relationship to God but also the validity of religion.
Even though Curse Your Branches is the first time Bazan has spelled out his loss of faith, he hasn't really made up his mind about God. If anything, the album is an admission that he doesn't know what to believe anymore, and he's learning to be okay with the possible consequences of not knowing. Cognitive dissonance isn't just uncomfortable for Christians; it's also fear-inducing. Bazan spells this out on "When We Fell": it's the threat of hell that kept him a believer for so long. It's one thing to reconcile Christianity's contradictions because you think the beliefs are good and worthwhile--maybe that makes cognitive dissonance tolerable. But it's something else entirely if you abandon skepticism because you fear hell or, even worse, if you fear uncertainty.
Musically speaking, this uncertainty has been good for Bazan. With Pedro the Lion, he told metaphorical stories; solo, he's bearing his soul. The skepticism of his lyrics are contrasted by richer instruments, giving Curse Your Branches more dimension than Pedro the Lion albums like Control or Winners Never Quit. The super-slow, drawn out drumbeats and sparse guitars are replaced with swirling chords and Paul Simon-styled pianos. The keys on the album's final track, "In Stitches," are playing so intensely it sounds like the piano is crying. Almost every beat of Curse Your Branches is filled with music. His lyrics might sound unsure, but his songs portray a sense of confidence.
During recent live performances, Bazan has been taking the stage alone. He's played a few house shows a backing band (and will play with one during a live streaming concert today) but, for the most part, it's been just him and his guitar. He usually opens with the first two songs off Curse Your Branches, but he's been regularly performing two well-known Pedro the Lion songs--"Options" and "Priests and Paramedics"--both famous for their heartbreaking refrains about divorce and death, respectively. These are strangely appropriate choices. As much as Bazan tries to distance himself from God, he will--as a songwriter, and as a man raised in the Evangelical tradition--be defined by his relationship to God and by the music he wrote when God was the most important part of his life. It's like someone who gets divorced: it doesn't erase your marriage, and your life after your divorce will be, to some extent, informed by how your marriage and divorce played out.
If Bazan was once the mouthpiece for a generation of Christian indie rockers, he is now the personification of that little voice inside every former Christian's head. There's a lingering sense of guilt and confusion over renouncing God that could take a lifetime to work out. If the music this newly agnostic Bazan has created is any indication, then he made the right choice. His voice is more strong and clear as a skeptic than it ever was as a believer.