Curse your branches
It’s not like the late ‘90s were suffering from an absence of quality Christian musicians. Neutral Milk Hotel, coming out of Louisiana, released their acclaimed In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea, which remains required listening for any fan of independent music. At that time Nick Cave had been applying Christianity to more of his lyrics and released Boatman’s Call, one of the best albums of his career. And Johnny Cash, persuaded by Rick Rubin, was busy laying down more tracks for his legendary American Recordings series. But when David Bazan started releasing albums with his band Pedro the Lion, he managed to speak to a largely ignored element of the church that had been neglected by the big names in Christian Contemporary Music (CCM), like Michael W. Smith or Amy Grant.
Pedro the Lion’s music articulated a part of Christian experience that was intentionally and systematically ignored by 95% of Christian musicians – doubt. Their albums are a chronicled flight from a Pentecostalism that encouraged emotion and obscured the source. Bazan, the band’s lead singer and lyricist, wrote a number of songs that can only be described as Christian criticism of Christianity. If CCM was supposed to be a musical meditation on beauty, goodness, and truth, then, it was ultimately Bazan and not Christian pop superheroes who would fulfill that aim. Eventually, though, Bazan began to ask questions and failed to get the answers. He moved from accepting doubt as a raw material for faith to seeing the two as mutually exclusive, and the tenor of his lyrics changed remarkably.
Bazan’s latest album Curse Your Branches, which came out in early September, is his first full length solo effort and is easily his greatest achievement-musically speaking. Bazan’s singing abilities are also dramatically improved from his last album with Pedro the Lion. He finally has a sense of confidence in his voice, which he pushes to its most extreme limits, which is as fun to try to imitate as it is to listen to. His music draws on his experience with Pedro’s grit-rock, but also includes the fruits of Headphones, a keyboard-synth side project, and dozens of house shows with an acoustic guitar. Of all the albums I’ve purchased this year, Curse Your Branches is easily one of my favorite albums to put into the CD player.
But for all Bazan’s progress with his craft, his ability to draft thoughtful and incisive lyrics has suffered. Bazan’s brave sensitivity to the issues of faith and the perception of reality that he displayed in Pedro the Lion and even his solo EP, Fewer Moving Parts, seems to be largely gone. As a friend of mine pointed out, in his abandoning of Christianity he’s begun to sound more like the thoughtless mainstream Christian singers he observed as a Christian. Instead of thoughtfully taking his former faith to task (there are some great examples of this on his EP), he attacks God with cheapshot polemics, like on “When We Fell”:
When you set the table,
When you chose the scale,
Did you write a riddle that you knew they would fail?
Did you make them tremble
So they would tell the tale?
Did you push us when we fell?
I think the answer is, “no.” Bazan’s pith, of course, is appreciated in our present lyrical drought, but on Curse Your Branches it seems as though he’s used his wit to elide over a number of complicated issues, attacking a straw Christianity without bothering to investigate other representations of it.
One joke about most CCM lyrics is that Jesus sounds like more of a boyfriend than the incarnate and glorified redeemer. On Curse Your Branches, God comes across as Bazan’s ex-lover, one he left behind long ago, but one who is still present enough in his mind to drive him to drink. The album is so defined by being against God that it’s the musical version, unfortunately, of God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, or perhaps Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, two shoddy books as likely to drive a thinker to Christianity as away from it. While Bazan’s honesty is as appreciated as it is expected, I can’t help but think that the album is his most insubstantial. I’d like to think that he’ll return to his lyrical form on his next album, regardless of whether he’s wandered back into the fold. I’ll admit, though, it’s hard for me to imagine that Bazan’s agnostic tolerate-everything embrace-nothing attitude will frame a world much worth singing about.
David Bazan will be playing this Wednesday, October 7, at the Mohawk.
And, at 5 PM, free in-store at Waterloo Records.