What happens when one of the leading lights of Christian-crossover indie rock loses his faith?
In all the years that David Bazan worked under the band moniker Pedro the Lion, his devout Christianity rarely forced itself into the forefront in his lyrics — lyrics that were always just oblique enough that the casual listener might have missed their religious overtones at all. And so, if you're not paying close attention, Bazan's new release, Curse Your Branches (his second release under his own name and first actual full-length), might not sound all that different from his oeuvre that preceded it. Upon closer inspection, though, you discover that something dramatic, even life-shattering, has happened: David Bazan has passed through an existential wall, and is now standing on the outside of a belief structure that defined everything in his life since childhood - and that's a simultaneously liberating and terrifying place to be.
Curse Your Branches opens with "Hard To Be," a gorgeous combination of winsome, alienated piano, poppy synth and gently pulsing guitars that almost seems to be an instrumental culmination of the sonic territory Bazan has staked out over the years — from the indie-guitar tapestries of Pedro the Lion, Casio-esque experiments of his Headphones project, and chunky electric textures of 2007's Fewer Moving Parts. Bazan's voice enters, and instantly, we hear the reassuring and familiar recipe: deliberate, almost metronomic phrasing of verse and melody, but delivered with that aching sincerity and vulnerability, a combination that somehow manages to straddle detachment and dead seriousness. And then, the lyrics hit: "Wait just a minute/you expect me to believe/that all this misbehaving/grew from one enchanted tree?" Holy cow. The meaning of the title suddenly dawns: it's an encapsulation of Bazan's questioning of his faith. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the knowledge that has supposedly thrust us out of the garden, has created all the pain and suffering, all the sin, in the world? To Bazan, it seems like a rigged game: in "When We Fell," he expresses bitterness toward a God that would arrange such a situation for Adam and Eve to begin with: "When you set the table/when you chose the scale/did you write a riddle/that you knew they would fail?"
To me, there's almost no one better suited to this kind of subject matter than Bazan. Simultaneously tragic and deadpan, hangdog sad and sharply funny, dark and damned catchy, his songs carry a weight that would be almost too much to bear if they weren't delivered in his characteristic dry wit. It may seem odd for a guy who's lyrics verge on the morose to be described as a comedian, but that's Bazan's true secret; his timing is impeccable, with songs constructed in such a way that his simple punch lines still sneak up on you even though you know you're overdue for one. And then there are insights so economically profound they almost make you slap your head: "I discovered Hell to be the poison in the well," he sings in "Bless This Mess." Living a life of forgone conclusions, always at the ready to curse those who question them, might just be more of a pathway to Hell in Bazan's eyes than the act of renouncing his faith could ever be.
At times, it occurs to you that these catchy little tunes can barely contain the gut-wrenching introspection within them. Bazan is up front about the alcoholism that he sunk into when he first started to wrestle with his doubt. The doubt itself, though, is clearly the struggle that overpowers all the others, and it reaches its apex in the final track, "In Stitches," when he confesses,
I might as well admit it
Like I even have a choice
The crew have killed the captain
But they still can hear his voice
A shadow on the water
A whisper in the wind
On long walks with my daughter
Who is lately full of questions
The struggle isn't over for David Bazan. Indeed, if he's up for the challenge, things are probably just now about to get truly interesting.