I had reasons to get my hopes up about David Bazan. Bazan was great on the NPR show Sound Check, Jessica Hopper raved about him, and hearing his new songs performed acoustically made me brace myself for this album. I bought Curse Your Branches, Bazan’s new album and first full length since disbanding Pedro The Lion a few years back, the day it came out; I haven’t done that in so long, not intentionally. And, after a week, here’s my thought: this album is simply too caustic to be as great as I was really hoping it would be.
The tracks that excel sound better than anything Bazan has recorded in years. The half character sketch-half confessional of “Please, Baby, Please” is just as moving as the live performance I posted a few months ago. “Bless This Mess” is made all the more sincere and desolate by it’s exhausted attempts at irony. “Curse Your Branches” has one hell of a brilliant chorus (“All falling leaves should curse their branches./For not letting them decided where they should fall,/And not letting them refuse to fall at all”) with verses that, even if Bazan himself explained their meaning to me, would probably still seems like space-fillers. Opener “Hard To Be” surprises when it betrays itself halfway through it’s length, dismissing the parable of the fall of man for a crueler, simpler chorus: “it’s hard to be a decent human being.” Closer “In Stitches” also works well using the same directness and simplicity. “When We Fell” just barely works, more bitterly anti-Christian and more personal than anything I’ve mentioned so far, The song’s last verse devolves into mere ranting. “In what medieval kingdom does justice work that way,” Bazan asks, broadly about Christianity, referring to nothing, not justifying the wieght and heft of his words.
I don’t know Bazan’s struggle, besides what he tells me in his lyrics. He lost his sense of the divine, became an alcoholic, and was ultimately able to, it seems, find some peace in questioning his belief. But the lyrics of “When We Fell” (and many of the other tracks on the album) made it sound like Bazan was chased out of town with pitchforks by pure righteous Christians, that his house was burnt down by the parishioner’s up and coming 21 year old son who had something to prove, that he received daily death threats from his former prayer group. I do not mean to minimize the struggle Bazan, or anyone for that matter has with their own faith (and, personally, I do believe it is and should be a struggle), but the lyrics of his new songs don’t suggest a struggle so much as they suggest a slaughter. “Harmless Sparks” to put it nicely, gives a obvious, appalled take on the priest sex scandal, but fails when it tries to generalize from those instances of abuse to religion in general. “Bearing Witness” is as heavy handed and sermonizing about agnosticism as it’s title would suggest. And I could go on with every track I didn’t name in the paragraph prior to this one. Which brings up an interesting point.
Trackwise, I like, really do like and might even love, 6 out of the 10 tracks on this album. Even if every other track on this album is a failure, that leaves, by way of sheer numbers, a pretty good album overall. I think to appreciate the tracks that I dislike, I have to engage with them academically, not on the visceral level of either music or lyrics. Here’s where things get a little esoteric.
When Bazan directs his fury at the church, I can only see it as a coping mechanism. Let me explain: Because this album is released under Bazan’s own name, because advanced press has been labeling it “his most personal album yet,” and because many of the lyrics are in fact written in the first person, it is easy and sensible to take Bazan at his word. When he’s saying “the church sucks” the listener is going to think “he means ‘the church sucks’ ” and when he says “the church caused me so much pain,” the listener is going to think “man, fuck the church for causing David Bazan pain and misery.”
But, like I said, besides a few fanatical fans who might feel betrayed, I doubt the church really cared one way or the other whether Bazan was a believer or not. The way I’m reading the most bitter and vicious tracks on Curse Your Branches, they’re really about Bazan. That’s not to say that religion deserves no blame: there are, in the world, horrible priests (rabbis, imams, etc.), but Bazan’s fury doesn’t seem to be genuinely directed towards them, nor towards religion, despite what he’s singing. He’s angry at himself. Angry for feeling guilty for “abandoning” his faith, angry for thinking about the spiritual consequences of such an action. He says as much in the albums last song, “In Stitches,” “The crew have killed the captain/But they still can hear his voice.” The track is one that I like, it’s words are conflicted, wrought out of the worst side of a contradiction, but it feels genuine. On the other hand, the worst tracks on the album feel, to me, like Bazan is lying to himself, fighting an enemy he’s just made up. It’s difficult, this one.
The first two, I like. The last, I don’t.
And here’s, unrelated, an Uncle Tupelo song I really like.
Finally, Caitlin Cary, one of the founders of Whiskeytown, released a great album of duets with a guy named Thad Cockrell called Begonias a few years back, and then, it seems, kinda dropped out of music and decided she wanted to live a life. Fair enough. I don’t have any news regarding her (which is kinda a shame), but I did stumble upon this video of her singing America The Beautiful at the inauguration of the governor of South Carolina this past January. It’s the most beautiful rendition of the song I’ve heard.