From Christianity into doubt
Though not obvious at the time of the controversial Calvin performance, Bazan was then just beginning a process of writing his first fully autobiographical album, a song cycle that presented in uncomfortable detail his alcoholism, the strain his reckless behavior was putting on his family, and the slow erosion of his faith into agnosticism. He was uneasy with the extent to which he was exposing his personal struggle, and also afraid of alienating his audience (or what remained of it) with an album that would be so blatant in its allegations that Christians would be offended and so concerned with the minutia of faith that his secular listeners wouldn’t understand what he was talking about. If he was to be honest and forthcoming, he had to release it, but he understood the risks involved. By the summer of 2009, he was finally ready.
Invited back to the Cornerstone Festival for the first time since he was tossed off the stage six years earlier, Bazan debuted his new set of songs, not knowing what kind of response to expect from the staunchly evangelical crowd. By all accounts, the reaction was mixed: some listeners heckled him; a number were seen leaving the stage area in tears; others offered quiet support. Most didn’t seem to know what to think, wondering if it was all another character sketch, a caricature of doubt that Bazan was using to illustrate the wages of sin and the need for listeners to safeguard themselves against doubt. And despite being a remarkably straightforward set of songs — as potent and poignant as any in his catalog — after listening to Curse Your Branches, those reactions all seem legitimate.
Opening with a wash of ethereal synthesizers and repeated piano chords, “Hard to Be” sets the confrontational tone of the album by recreating the Fall of Man, placing the listener in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve as they bring suffering into the world. “Wait just a minute, you expect me to believe that all this misbehaving came from one enchanted tree?” he sings, with a voice both mournful and indignant. “And helpless to fight it, we should all be satisfied, for this magical explanation for why the living die / and why it’s hard to be a decent human being,” he continues before describing his “graduation” from Christianity into doubt, a ceremony that left his mother fasting in prayer for his soul while he struggled to figure out who he is without his faith.
Tangling with a God he claims not to believe in
Bless This Mess – audio only
Though it may seem strange that Bazan is essentially tangling with a version of God that he claims not to believe in, it’s obvious that the sting of engagement is no less intense. “You knew this would happen, and you made us just the same,” he sings on “When We Fell,” accusing God of knowingly setting up a rigged game that was designed for human beings to fail, “so you, my Lord, can take the blame.” Bazan even bares his teeth in defense of his family, threatening the deity to back off his mother as she cries over the loss of his faith: “If you bully her like you done me with fears of damnation, I hope she can see you for what you are.” Presenting God as a medieval tyrant who blames his subjects for hurting themselves with the tools he fashioned for that purpose, Bazan never forfeits the moral high ground in his debate.
Most striking of all is Bazan’s use of ethos in establishing his authority and authenticity as a critic. On “Lost on My Shape,” he reflects on his days as the angry young man of Christian indie rock and the alienation and disillusionment he now feels toward that period of his life. “You used to sound like a prophet, but now you feel like a child throwing tantrums,” he says humbly, allowing the listener to speculate on the years of his self-destructive drinking and erratic outbursts. “You used to feel like the prodigal returning, but now you hate what you’ve made, and you want to watch it burn.” No longer able to go home, now the prodigal son finds little pleasure in his body of work, feeling like a “salesman” going through the motions, desiring to destroy every trace of who he was.
Closing the album is “In Stitches,” a somber summary statement that places Bazan back at the beginning of his struggle, trying to drink himself into a stupor to forget about his existential grief, and confronting God one last time. “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,” he coos wearily before admitting that he’s still haunted by his former notions of God when he walks through nature, and puzzles over how to answer his daughter’s questions about the meaning of life. Bazan turns decidedly darker as he closes out the album, however. “When Job asked you a question / you responded, ‘Who are you to question your creator?’ / Well, if that one part is true / It makes you sound defensive, like you had not thought it through enough to have an answer / or you might have bit off more than you could chew.” Without the final stanza, one could easily mistake the track for a breakup song, the tale of a man haunted by a lover he can’t forget. But with the closing mention of Job, the Old Testament character who famously retained his faith despite suffering all varieties of tragedy and doubt, Bazan positions himself as a modern equivalent, but one who has ultimately concluded that God is a bully that doesn’t deserve worship.
Taken as a whole, it’s a profoundly sad and restless record, one with no obvious resolution or optimistic conclusion that reveals Bazan to have come through the process a stronger and wiser man. Unlike his other albums, there is no sense of redemption on Curse Your Branches, no sense that all of the apparent suffering and misery inherent in his storytelling is serving a greater purpose. There is only resignation to a future, where he’s left to sew together the pieces of a life that no longer fit, having gained the freedom to ask questions but losing the security of knowing the answers. What we’re left with is still-throbbing discontent — a man left negotiating between two versions of himself. The comfort of faith is gone; all that remains are ghosts and memories, shadows on the water and questions from his daughter that he can no longer answer.
Check back next week for our exclusive Q&A with David Bazan.