David Bazan made a name for himself in the ’90s with a band called Pedro the Lion, which juggled Jesus, critically lauded rock ’n’ roll, and biting social criticism. When Pedro got its start in 1995, there were a good number of Bazan has an especially strong sense of spiritual authenticity, which makes his critique so poignant.bands doing the first two—and doing them well—but Bazan’s scathing critique set him apart. Bazan swung his indie-rock lead pipe hard, raining down punishing blows on political power grabs, redneck antics, beauty myths, corporate greed, militarism, vapid consumerism, and every other shiny idol within reach, including—especially—evangelical Christian hypocrisy. He sang story-songs about the soul-numbing compromises of a corporate office worker, adultery, domestic abuse, and murder—not your usual “Christian” music themes. Bazan recorded and performed great-sounding music, and he made devoted fans of listeners like me who held tight to a resilient religious heritage but refused to smile politely at blatant hypocrisy.
Take, for example, the song “Slow and Steady Wins the Race” from Winners Never Quit. The song is split in two parts, the first a nasty little fairy tale, the second, biting satire:
All the way to grandma’s house
I stayed on the narrow path
But my brother wandered off
Deep into the woods
Bitten twice by rattlesnakes
Tangled up in poison oak
He fell down and broke his legs
Into a great ravine
Rather than stopping to help, the narrator continues on to grandma’s place, where he eats tea and cake. When grandma asks where brother is, “I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and ate.” The second half follows the obviously brutal logic of the first half:
When I get to heaven
I’ll be greeted warmly
Surrounded by angels
As Jesus takes my hand
I’ll receive a mansion
On the river Jordan
And a crown of diamonds
For a race well run
I won’t ever lock my doors
I will trust my neighbors
Confident that they deserve
To be there in heaven, too
What strikes me as fierce satire of self-preservation and religious hypocrisy is apparently subtle enough that fans used to shake his hand after shows and thank him for his beautiful uplifting song about our heaven reward. Angry as his songs tended to be, Bazan was too gracious to point out that “uplifting encouragement” wasn’t quite what he was after.
But in 2009, shortly after Bazan dropped the band name Pedro the Lion, he also dropped Jesus and released Curse Your Branches, ten songs explaining why he no longer called himself a Christian. It was, without question, the most honest collection of songs from his fourteen-plus year career. “Wait just a minute,” he sings on “Hard to Be,” the album’s first track,
You expect me to believe
That all this misbehaving grew from one enchanted tree?
And helpless to fight it, we should all be satisfied
With this magical explanation for why the living die?
Childbirth is painful
We toil to grow our food
Ignorance made us hungry
Information made us no good
Every burden misunderstood
So I swung my tassel to the left side of my cap
Knowing after graduation there would be no going back
And no congratulations from my faithful family
Some of whom are already fasting to intercede for me
Some of the critics were unimpressed. Jesse Cataldo at Slant wrote, “Bazan has used high-minded songwriting as an excuse for dourness, serious explorations into spirituality and love that are well-meaning but ultimately inexcusably dreary.” Others claimed that his explications of doubt and unbelief were too “on-the-nose.” But, Curse Your Branches was warmly received by a broad swath of pop culture tastemakers: The Los Angeles Times, Paste, and Tiny Mix Tapes all rated it 88/100 or higher. Curse Your Branches was polarizing for many of Bazan’s Christian—and post-Christian—followers: some dumped Bazan because he had dumped God, while others felt he had finally put into words precisely the sort of things they had been feeling for years. But a whole bunch of us landed somewhere between: stunned by the beauty, honesty, anger and doubt of his astonishingly personal songs, we weren’t ready to give up on God or David Bazan.
It wasn’t just his audience that got rattled: walking away from faith left him renegotiating some of his most important relationships. When he was in Winnipeg for a performance last year he told me, “One day I looked at my wife and I said, ‘Honey, we’re unequally yoked!’ This terrible, dreaded condition I’d been warned about all my growing up years—suddenly this was us.” (For the record, Bazan and his wife are still married—fifteen years and counting—despite the apparent spiritual peril of the situation. “We’re both agreed on this,” he said. “The wedding vows, that part’s non-negotiable.”) But his apostasy has hurt his friends and family—a lot. The end of “In Stitches,” the closing song on Branches, includes a piano outro played by Bazan’s father, a lifelong pastor, and if you listen very closely, the very last sound you hear as the piano notes fade is a sigh from Mr. Bazan, Sr. Or take this lyric from “Fewer Broken Pieces:”
One good friend remarks
With a righteously angry “Jesus, Dude!
None of us knows what to do with you.”
What to do with Bazan? That’s more or less how it’s been with him all along, and probably how it ought to be. When he still called himself a Christian, Bazan only sang a handful of Jesus-y songs, but since his religious defection, he seems to find it hard to sing about anything else. “What to do with Bazan” has always been genuinely troubling, not so much because he’s a doubter, but because he’s such good artist. The older he gets, the more human folly he observes; the more folly, the more shiny idols there are to swing at. His work is usually pretty brutal, so poignant and unflinching that there are times it literally keeps me up at night, but it’s still worth my time, attention, and money because it remains so piercingly true.
Bazan’s body of work is rooted in the same soil as that of Wendell Berry, another poignant and articulate critic. Bazan is just as angry as Berry because he loves as deeply as Berry, and both are enraged in exact correlation to the love they have for family, neighbor, country, even enemies, their rage a response to the ignorant, mindless destruction of all that’s worth caring about and living for. Bazan, like Berry, is deeply conservative; not in his politics, but in his fundamental conviction that the current trends of consumption and disposal will wreck everything we care for if we don’t put up a fight. First he loves, then he fights. Xenophobia, blind patriotism, insatiable consumerism—these will stomp all over the basic moral impulse to love. Here’s “Strange Negotiations,” his mournful anti-anthem to modern economic policy, from Volume 1 with The Passenger String Quartet:
You cut your leg off to save a buck or two
Because you never consider the cost
You found the lowest prices every day
But would you look at everything that we’ve lost
Yeah, it’s true, I learned it from watching you
But now it’s you who doesn’t know what a dollar is worth
We got the market its own bodyguards
And all the people are getting hurt
And then there’s the unmistakable moral thunder of “Messes,” a song like a series of snapshots of people surprised when terribly stupid actions produce negative consequences:
Messes in the dark
Make headlines every morning
Everyone makes mistakes
Like it’s the only way we learn
Be careful ’cause the lights
Come on without a warning
People seem so confused
When they’re caught with some bullshit
Bazan is at his fiercest on the song “Backwoods Nation,” in which his explosive anger is directly proportional to what’s at stake:
Calling all rednecks to put down their sluggers
And turn their attention from beating the buggers
To pick up machine guns and kill camel fuckers
Calling the doctors of spin and smokescreen
To whip the new hate-triots into a frenzy
Of good versus evil ignoring the history of the
And ain’t it a shame
That due process
Stands in the way
Of swift justice
Calling all frat boys to trade in their hazing
Their keggers and cocaine and casual date raping
For cabinet appointments and rose garden tapings
Ouch. His lyrics hit so hard because he keeps on poking his finger into open wounds we try not to look at. Like Flannery O’Connor, he’s inclined to use large and startling images or gruesome and awful stories to get our attention. His sometimes terrifying songs proclaim, “Don’t you dare ignore this.”
As a singer, Bazan has never sounded better. Approaching middle age, his voice is aging beautifully: strong and rich, warm, thunderous as required. Last September he released an album’s worth of older material—including some of his old Pedro songs—reworked for him and his guitar backed by the Passenger String Quartet. He’s also now partway into volume 2 of a monthly musical subscription service of seven-inch singles, promising two new songs a month for the next year or so. So far his songs cover a broad range of sounds, from barebones guitar-and-vocal to mashed-up electronics to thunderous rock ’n’ roll, all of which would make for a terribly disjointed album but which, as delivered, are brilliant little sonic experiments. He’s making good music at least in part because he’s having a lot of fun.
So while Bazan officially walked away from belief five or six years ago, he won’t stop singing moral, religious songs. Here’s a lyric from one of his monthly subscription songs, “Impermanent Record”:
I was trembling with gooseflesh
First time I prayed to speak in tongues
I saw it coming, and I tried to run
But now I make it up as I go along . . .
The rain falls on the animals
The wind blows up the dirt
I climb the rock, make my home in the cleft
Keep a record of the earth.
He’s doing more than simply mining Christianity for its rich, resonant imagery: though no longer a believer, he’s still directly addressing the church much of the time. When Bazan played a concert in Winnipeg in 2013 at an evangelical Anglican church, he seemed to confuse a good number of the audience members. “How do you feel about playing in a church?” someone asked during the Q&A Bazan hosts between songs. “I feel great,” he said. “Everyone that I know goes to church every Sunday, just like I did for most of my life. And I still love them even if I don’t believe what they do anymore.” You can take the doubter out of church more easily than you can take church out of the doubter. “I wanna know who are these people,” Bazan sings on “People,”
Blaming their sins on the fall
Who are these people
If I’m honest with myself at all
These are my people
Man, what else can I say
You are my people
A counterfeit detective will spend the majority of his or her training handling real money rather than counterfeit bills. Genuine currency has its own material, texture, weight, color, wear patterns, and smell. It even has its own sound when handled. Fakes come in an infinite number of variations on any one of those properties, but the best way to spot a fake is to know what’s authentic.
Bazan has an especially strong sense of spiritual authenticity, which makes his critique so poignant. His rage has far more gravitas than that of the strident, sanctimonious “new atheists” like Dawkins or Harris because unlike them, he truly and thoroughly understands what he’s criticizing. But perhaps even more unsettling than his criticism is that, in spite of his unbelief, he still carries a striking spiritual sensitivity for the genuine article. He has his blind spots and his biases; nobody’s perfect. But if it’s a choice between the pleasant, ad-induced stupor of advertisers and the bracing, brutal truth from someone like Bazan, I’ll plug in the headphones, crank up the volume, and hang on for dear life to the truth.