A New Way of Thinking

Curse Your Branches, David Bazan (Barsuk Records)


'You've heard the story / you know how it goes'. And so begins Curse Your Branches, David Bazan's first full-length release under his real name. And, in many ways, he's right. Long time fans of David Bazan will be familiar with the stylistic touches, themes and ideas presented throughout the entire album, from the heavy use of Christian imagery and discussion of its concepts through to the angular guitar riffs that could have been torn straight from Control, his 2002 release under the moniker Pedro the Lion. Indeed, to someone who is familiar with all his work (including the short-lived and criminally overlooked Headphones), this entire album sometimes seems like a self-referential game, where only an avid listener can locate all the key moments and flourishes that have been pulled from everything that has come before.

However, to simply disregard
Curse Your Branches as a reworking of earlier creations would be unfair. Instead, it seems to be more of a natural culmination of Bazan's decade and a half of writing and performing music in various forms. Musically, it is a far more well rounded set of tunes than anything that has come before - gone is the under-arranged, sparse and often under-produced feel of early Pedro the Lion albums such as Whole, It's Hard to Find a Friend and The Only Reason I Feel Secure (and, of course, that aforementioned Headphones album, which took synthesizer-based indie-rock and made it as sparse as it could probably ever go). Also gone is the straightforwardly rockier moments of Winners Never Quit and Control, with their angular, jarring and sometimes even brazen guitar/drum/bass arrangements. Instead, Bazan has opted for a balance of all the previous approaches, summoning touches of each as he sees fit. Those quiet moments of It's Hard to Find a Friend are recreated in 'Harmless Sparks', only to be reinforced by Headphones' subtle and melancholy synth touches in the last half. The more produced and cleaned up feel of Achilles Heel or the first half of Fewer Moving Touches first appears in the opener - 'Hard to Be' - and sticks around for the majority of the album. And much like Control, which ended with the sombre reflection, disillusionment and self-contradiction of 'Rejoice', Curse Your Branches finds itself a solid reflective closer with 'In Stitches', a confessionalistic song that actively sums up and caps off the entire narrative thread of the album.

But here - in the narrative - is where the album departs the furthest from all of Bazan's work. Whereas previous writings were moralistic tales about semi-fictional characters, and any personal involvement was veiled away, here, Bazan is his own character, his own subject, and instead of creating vessels to explore his own faults, dilemmas and quandaries, his personal life has been put into songs for all to hear.

This change - from the semi-fictional to the confessional - is the end result of almost half a decade of turbulence in Bazan's life. For the past year, both the publicity interviews and the Q&A sessions at Bazan's gigs have largely dealt with two subjects - his drinking and his rejection of the Christian beliefs he was raised with. In an interview with Tinymixtapes, an online music site, Bazan is quoted as saying that 'I think it was a gradual shift. I think you can kind of see it in the Pedro The Lion records. I expressed some doubts about the dynamics of my faith on
It's Hard To Find A Friend [but] it was shortly after [Control] I think that I stopped self-identifying as a Christian. And while he was once compared to Jesus by Christian music fans, his lyrics now espouse an almost fiery level of doubt of his former faith. And he doesn't bring it in slowly, either; the aforementioned opener, 'Hard to Be', opens with a recounting of the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve, the garden of Eden, and the repercussions of the eating of the poison fruit -  the pain of childbirth, the existence of death, the toiling for food and so forth. However, Bazan, now a noticeable voice in his own work, stands up and asks 'Wait just a minute / You expect me to believe / That all this misbehaving / Grew from one enchanted tree?' And while this level of doubt isn't a new thing for Bazan - Pedro The Lion's 'Secret of the Easy Yoke', for example, told a similar story with lines like 'The devoted were wearing bracelets / To remind them of why they came / Some concrete motivation / When the abstract could not do the same' - his newfound bluntness leads him to talks of leaving the church in terms of 'graduation', claiming that he received 'no congratulations / From my faithful family / Some of whom are already fasting / To intercede for me'. This then flips the chorus of 'Because it's hard to be a decent human being' away from being simply about the pain of existence since the original sin to the difficulty of finding comfort when your faith has crumbled - insinuating, of course, that not being a Christian equates being a decent human being, and that the opposite must also, therefore, be true.

This issue - that of reconciling his new way of thinking with the fact that many of his friends and family are closer to his old life - is something Bazan and his those around him have been quite frank about in interviews and articles connected to the album. Bazan states that 'the social fallout is the biggest burden of the process of changing your faith, especially if your whole family is in that camp', and this - and Bazan's desire to help them see things how he has come to understand them - is dealt with quite frankly in the album. In 'Bearing Witness', a song that breaks away from Pedro the Lion's quiet folk and later hard rock tunes, instead relying on a well-produced soft rock sound, a Bazan who is 'sick and tired of trying to make the pieces fit' tells us that 'the gap between / what I hoped would be / and what is makes me weep for my kids', and instructs us that 'though it may alienate your family / and blur the lines of your identity / let go of what you know / and honor what exists.' He's torn between what he feels is right and what how his family may react. And in the beautifully understated title track, we find a man who is upset at his newfound position; 'Oh, falling leaves should curse their branches / for not letting them decide where they should fall.' But more potent is a verse that never made it to the album, one that can only be found on live recordings that predate the album's release: 'In my throat there swells a darkness / it fills my mouth, and coats my lips / and even as the threat of hell is disappearing / the threat of losing you is blowing up.' Here, he is discussing the potential loss of his wife and dissolving of his marriage, and its omission is potentially telling; perhaps Bazan felt that setting these lyrics into stone was tempting fate?

But his relationship with his wife was not his only worry. 'When We Fell' finds Bazan 'completely unravelling / The powerful curse put on me by you' - the target of his lyrics being what he once believed to be his Lord - and later stating that 'If my mother cries when I tell her what I discovered / Then I hope she remembers she taught me to fallow my heart / And if you bully her like you done me with fear of damnation / Then I hope she can see you / for what you are'. His enlightenment could potentially have caused a lot of trouble, and the rest of song reads like a scathing attack on God, picking apart the logic of the ideas of sin and hell ('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?') and later asking God directly 'In what medieval kingdom does justice work that way?' Meanwhile, the vitriolic lyrics are ironically backed with quiet vocal harmonizing that evokes gospel or old fashioned spirituals, and a shuffling drumbeat paired with a chugging guitar riff that lends Bazan's message a militaristic force. Bazan obviously realised what was at risk, and stated in an interview that 'as soon as I finished writing that tune, I e-mailed it to my parents, not exactly asking permission, but definitely wanting to run it by them. If it was going to be a problem, or going to be a wedge between us, then I wouldn't have put it on there.'

Later in the album, 'In Stitches', with its long, weary melodies and melancholic tone, finds Bazan taking a much softer but equally disdainful approach to God. Here, the anger of the argument has subsided, and Bazan knows the relationship has finally ended; this is Bazan's Dear John letter, and one of the most brutally honest moments of the album, if not his entire career. He deals with his alcoholism ('I need no other memory / of the bits of me I left / when all this lethal drinking / is to hopefully forget / about you'), his relationship with his daughter ('who is lately full of questions / about you', much like the daughter of a divorced or widowed parent), and finally, he simply creates the image of a weak, flawed Lord: 'it makes you sound defensive / like you had not thought it through / enough to have an answer / like you might have bit off more than you could chew'. It reminds me of a song by his former Jade Tree Records labelmate, Blake Schwarzenbach (of Jets to Brazil); 'when you say my name to me / like some amusing piece of food between my teeth / then I will know it's completely over'; it's that moment when one person in a relationship looks at the other, sees all the flaws and faults, and views them not with fury or anger but with pity and regret, and knows it's time to walk away.

And so, with this relationship finished and gone, what is Bazan left with? He was always put forward as a Christian songwriter, and has often been reviewed as such (to the point where Bazan even wrote a song about being put in that box - 'Selling Advertising', off the pre-Curse Your Branches EP called Fewer Moving Parts - which was an amusing answer to a particularly short-sighted review of one of his albums by internet taste-makers Pitchfork). But will this album's firm and undeniable renouncement of his title as Christian Rock's Saviour change things, and allow reviewers to ignore his vacated position? Probably not. Those things aren't as easy to shrug off as some may wish; just as Pete Doherty will always be known for the drugs, Bazan - no matter what subjects he chooses to breach in his next album - will always be known for his Christianity, or lack thereof. Which is a shame, because with songs as strong - both musically and lyrically - as these, his work is worthy of being heard by people across the board, and while the Christian Rock brand may drag some listeners in, it's nowhere near as many as he rightfully deserves.

      Tony Gale 2010