From the opening bars of "Hard to Be," the first song of David Bazan's set at Neumo's on Saturday night, it was clear that this was a different musician and different man on stage. There was the most obvious change: for the first time in five years, Bazan was performing in his hometown with a backing band. But there were more subtle changes, too. Anyone who's seen Bazan perform recently--when he's taken the stage solo--knows how melancholy his music can be. When Bazan stands alone on stage, strumming his guitar and belting out lyrics with his steady, mournful voice, it's impossibly to ignore the sadness and confusion of his songs.
David Bazan performed Saturday night at Neumo's, the first time in five years with a full backing band.
That sadness was curbed by his backing band. Adding a keyboard and vocal harmonies to "Hard to Be" recreated live the poppy, energetic sound of Curse Your Branches. And it's easier to swallow the phrase, "It's hard to be a decent human being," when it's coated in bright guitars and tinkling keys.
But if Bazan seems less sad these days, it might have something to do with the style and structure of his newer material.His set on Saturday night included a variety of songs from Pedro the Lion, Headphones, and his solo EP Fewer Moving Parts. His earlier songs--especially "Priests and Paramedics," which he played during his entirely solo encore--are more repetitive in structure. They repeat the same words for effect--like the heartwrenching refrain, "You're gonna die/We're all gonna die," on "Priests and Paramedics"--and the sound is steadier, more stripped down. Bazan played at least two Pedro the Lion songs ("I Do" on Achilles Heel and "Magazine" on Control) and, while beautiful, they felt very different from the material on Curse Your Branches or even Fewer Moving Parts. As Bazan has taken on more complicated subject matter, his songs have become more complex musically.
And Bazan's new world view (he's no longer a Christian) means that his entire musical catalog is open to new interpretation. It's hard to listen to anything by Bazan's written without wondering if a song about relationships is actually a veiled reference to his loss of faith. On Saturday, he performed "I Never Wanted You," recorded with his post-Pedro project Headphones. While the song is ostensibly about faking romantic love ("I never wanted you/ You never had my heart/ Our love was never true"), there's reason to question whether that song is about Bazan rejecting God. That's the thing about Bazan: without his Christian anchor, he's unpredictable now, because, for the first time, he's the one in charge. As he sings on "Fewer Broken Pieces": "I still run the show/ And don't you forget it."