I can tick the passing of my adult life by which David Bazan concert I attended each year. I’ve been following his career for nearly two decades now, ever since he toured exclusively as Pedro the Lion, a band who once broke beyond the Christian music machine and garnered critical acclaim from the pious and godless alike. I own practically every album and side project the man has ever released.
What I’m getting at is, I had no reason to expect anything new from Strange Negotiations, the biographical documentary about Bazan’s life and musical journey, directed by Brandon Vedder. I sit firmly within this film’s target demographic. This is a story I already know.Strange Negotiations peels the curtain back to show the emotional and relational cost that this seemingly successful business model extracted from the musician himself.
It begs the question: Is Strange Negotiations intended for broader appeal, or does it merely tickle the pleasure centers of fanboys like me?
Honestly, I’m not really sure. Bazan is undoubtedly the central character of the Strange Negotiations story, and it’s hard to imagine finding something of value here without investing oneself in that story.
That said, Bazan’s ethos isn’t so different from that of all religious wayfarers. His music taps into the heart-songs of men and women who are grieving and hoping and wrestling their way through the broken state of faith, civics, and family life in America. They’re the spiritually lonesome who suspect there are greater divine workings in the world, but have come up empty trying to find them in the religious institutions we’ve built.
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Back in the late nineties and early aughts, Pedro the Lion sang melancholy tunes about the poison pills of American Christianity, particularly the lily-white, politically compromised evangelical tradition through which David Bazan came to faith. It was mellow, Christian-ish music that made space for doubt and anxiety, that saw faith and doubt not as enemies, but as co-existing members of a symbiotic relationship.
I could buy you a drink, I could tell you all about it.
I could tell you why I doubt it and why I still believe.
—“The Fleecing” from Pedro the Lion’s 2004 album, Achilles Heel
The crowds at Pedro shows were a strange amalgamation of flannel-clad, religiously conflicted twentysomethings with messy hair and piercings, the type of former youth group kids who still cried while reading Max Lucado but secretly voted for Al Gore.
Eventually, for better or worse (depending on your perspective), Bazan succumbed to the doubts. By the mid-2000s, Pedro the Lion disbanded and Bazan began touring under his own name.
His first full solo album, 2009’s Curse Your Branches, is now widely accepted as Bazan’s public breakup letter to God, his laying down of the evangelical label and settling into a conflicted agnosticism, one that grieves the loss of religious and familial identity and is haunted by stubborn echoes of the Divine.
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
—“In Stitches” from the 2009 album, Curse Your Branches
The years following Pedro the Lion’s demise play host to the central tension of Strange Negotiations’s story, when Bazan’s faith and musical career had all but crumbled.
During that time, Bazan circumvented traditional music venues and pioneered a semi-workable business model of nationwide tours filled with intimate performances in his fans’ living rooms.
Strange Negotiations does as well as any film could to recreate the tone and tenor of these mini-concerts. Having attended several of these shows myself, I can attest to how they became pilgrimages where men and women would sit cross-legged on pillows and hardwood floors as they floated on the timbre of Bazan’s world-weary baritone, tenderly holding space for their anxious thoughts about God, family, and politics.
Bazan’s fanbase learned to set their clocks to the cycle. Nearly every year we could expect new recordings in our mailboxes, followed by one or two living room tours to support it. But Strange Negotiations peels the curtain back to show the emotional and relational cost that this seemingly successful business model extracted from the musician himself.
In the film’s penultimate sequence, Bazan sits isolated in his driver’s seat, eyes transfixed in a thousand-yard stare on the road ahead of him, filling the odometer of nondescript rental car along a lonesome interstate as the glow of an overcast day illuminates his tired countenance.
By this point in the film, the audience has accompanied Bazan through literal years of this same holding pattern. And we’ve come to draw the same conclusion that Bazan has now reached: this isn’t sustainable.
It’s a rare breed of men and women who can flourish while spending countless days alone on empty highways, away from their loved ones for months of the year. Bazan isn’t one of them.
Over the engine’s hum, he tells himself, “I wasn’t all wrong.” His lips quiver. Tears well in the bearded man’s eyes. “But there was a miscalculation.”
Without spoiling the plot any further, the final half hour of Strange Negotiations ends on an optimistic note, unveiling the remedy to the miscalculation. It’s a satisfying (and dare I say victorious) conclusion that outlines the path Bazan has chosen for the foreseeable future, most notably in revisiting and reacquainting himself with Pedro the Lion, the band that started it all.
If we were a more excitable bunch, it’s enough to make Bazan fans stand to their feet and cheer.
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In the last couple years, my wife and I started quoting a particular Bazan lyric to one another, almost as a mantra. We see something terrible in the news. We hear about a loved one who’s struggling. Or maybe the pain of our own lives and the struggles of our marriage feel particularly tender. And then one of us says to the other, “All of us need major healing.”
On our most exhausted days no one needs reminding of how grim things have gotten. As an American, it’s hard to imagine a flourishing society emerging from the polarized civic life in which we live. It’s hard to see the redemption arc of our public institutions. I listen to the news during my commute. Later, I log into Twitter. I check Facebook. And I feel mad. Truly, I have never felt madder.
But when I drill to the bottom of every dread I feel, it’s not anger or rage that I find there.
It’s trauma. And grief.
The thing I grieve is the same thing at the heart of Strange Negotiations, indeed, the heart of David Bazan’s entire 20-year musical catalog. It’s the trampling of our communal conscience and the killing of our collective sense of common good. It’s the weaponization of my patriotism and the monetization of my attention. It’s the unholy marriage of religious fervor with political power and toxic masculinity.
Try as I might, I can’t figure out where it went wrong. But I know there was a miscalculation somewhere. All of us need major healing. We could settle into despair, were it not for those quiet, stubborn echoes of the Divine.