To paraphrase Walt Whitman, what, does David Bazan contradict himself? Very well then, he contradicts himself—he is large, he contains multitudes. Whitman—an eternal revisionist—wrote that sentiment in his mid-nineteenth century poem “Song of Myself,” but just as the Quaker in him was dragged kicking and screaming into adulthood and his writing, so happens Bazan is a Jesus freak who no longer needs Jesus, who possibly never did, and his inward journey to ordinary godlessness is more or less performed in public via increasingly reactionary indie-folk rock. He is not a rock persona; he is a man in perpetual moral quandary.
“I still don’t know what to make of Jesus,” he says. “I just don’t know. I reject Hell, I don’t think that the Bible is God’s word, but it’s fascinating document, and it’s the subtext of Western Civilization.”
Since his early Pedro the Lion days and the release of 1998’s It’s Hard to Find a Friend, there’s been immense disappointment in Bazan for, in essence, doing his own thinking. This is because he made a very specific first impression with those initial Pedro albums (Friend and 2000’s Winners Never Quit) with two types of cool—critics who thought his genius for observation was right there with the Jeff Tweedy’s of the world in spite of his Christianity, and ironic hipsters who grabbed on because of it. And then there was the Christian youth, that class of verifiable uncool who were feeling some vindication when one of their brilliant rills flowed headstrong right into the mainstream.
Bazan, though, is made of authentic blood and tears, and when he says religion was never his “only identifying factor,” he’s sincerely believes it. He still connects with those aforementioned factions, but the trouble is Bazan’s loss of God, which he says happened definitively around the time of Achilles Heel in 2004, but adds “had been brewing since I was 18,” couldn’t help but strike all the wrong chords with his fans, critics and himself—even though he was presumably striking those chords for all the right reasons. Namely, to liberate himself—as an artist, as a human being. On some level, the novelty of a Christian rocker turning into an everyday agnostic loses all of its guilty pleasure, not to mention a lot of distinguishability.
Not that Bazan concerns himself with such things.
“I write about things I’m fascinated by,” he says. “In the past I’ve written a lot about death and break-ups. There’s the mundane aspects of life, then there’s the defining moments and for some reason, because it’s dramatic or something, I tend to write more about the defining moments.”
Bazan’s father (now a resident of Temecula) was a music pastor at the local church in Washington state where the family lived, and David played everything from piano to clarinet to drums at an early age. “We just lived at church, and both my father and my mom sang and played. I was in church musicals from the time I was a little kid,” he says, now “cringing” at the memory of the Christian music he listened to in his youth.
If you know a bit about the depressing terrain of Bazan’s songwriting—booze, women, God, hypocrisy, death, sex and messy relationships that end badly—you should know intuitively that he was a really repressed kid. It wasn’t until he was twelve years old that he was allowed to listen to secular music, and even then his choices were limited to the Beatles, of which he devoured “for eight or nine months in a row.” That is, until one day “I came around the corner singing ‘Yer Blues’ from the White Album with the refrain ‘Yes I’m lonely, wanna die,’ and my dad, as I was getting ready to move into adolescence and he was going to lose me forever, said ‘alright, no more Beatles!’” It would be a couple of years before Bazan got into Fugazi (his icons) and “some sappy James Taylor.” Heaven forefend.
Those suppressions were put to song when the bowstring finally released and Bazan was free to express himself how he saw fit. His themes which started off as subtle-hosannas soon became Freudian geysers and dystopian nightmares that set the blood aboil. Was not the entire Control album one long plunging penis or other, both literally (“Rapture” in the form of orgasm, “Second Best,” “Options,” etc.) and metaphorically (“Indian Summer” and “Penetration”—both about the thrusting corporate cock and the submissive little man)? Was not Pedro’s final album Achilles Heel, thought to be the final link to a conceptual trilogy after Control, a sharp left turn that was all about faith dying on the vine? And now that Bazan is a solo act—and T.W. Walsh parted ways in 2005, thus ending Pedro the Lion—is not his aim to, if he can’t prove the existence of God (though he perceives God exists) to prove at least the existence of Bazan as an artistic entity?
Yes, but he’s also being sarcastic, and despite the solemnity of his lyrics he doesn’t take things quite this seriously. Make no mistake that Bazan is being egotistical in his latest 10-song EP that officially came out this past May, Fewer Moving Parts (Jade Tree), which is actually five songs done twice—once in full instrumentation, and then again stripped down as acoustic versions. God is not absent, he just isn’t listening. And the loss of God is the discovery, in the burgeoning sense, of the artist. That process tends to be egotistical. But what a haunting collection of responses Moving Parts is, things that stuck in his craw that were penned in quicksilver and beer-ink. His answer to Pitchfork’s bad reviews of his last couple of albums is the opening track, “Selling Advertising,” in which he turns the microscope around and begins “You’re so creative, with your reviews, of what other people do, how satisfying that must be for you.” Somewhat spiteful, yeah? This would insinuate that Bazan cares enough to be paralyzed by critics, and that would be a safe assumption, although he used that paralysis to create an action. “I don’t feel any scrutiny from writers,” he lies. Of course he does, he’s mentioned the irresponsibility of Pitchfork in other publications, but if he contradicts himself, fine, etc.
He then responds to the splitting with Walsh in “Fewer Broken Pieces,” saying “or should I reconsider my reasons for going solo/David Byrne on Bob Costas put it pretty well, but I put it better, I still run the show, don’t you forget it.” This bit of tongue-in-cheek is supposedly exposing a megalomaniac, but just as he does in “Ads” he softens by song’s end.
In another track written six years ago entitled “Backwoods Nation,” he responds to 9/11 by inviting “all rednecks to pick up machine guns and kill camel fuckers,” behind an escalating trial-beat (mesmerizing staccato thrum in the acoustic version). The midtempo arrangements that Bazan uses—very slow, comically apathetic vocals—frame these images so boldly as to become almost offensive.
The other two tracks are perhaps truer to the character of the gruff lumberjack genius that is David Bazan. The first, “How I Remember,” is an anthem of insecurity, with the lyrics going, “I go out in public now more than you might think/but only after several drinks, that’s how I remember/but then if I see any girl I’ve ever met before, I run like hell for the door, that’s how I remember.” The other, “Cold Beer and Cigarettes,” is as brilliant a song as Bazan’s ever penned, the “white ghost making his way up the West Coast, trying to focus his high hopes on a vagina or two, he’s taking his chances.” Lyrics like that don’t come around everyday, and the slow hilarious devolution as cars catch fire in the parking lot, the blind All Seeing Eye of God as innocent automobiles are consumed in flames—just derelict genius, completely bats.
The notes of a lost soul, really, and it’ll be very interesting to see where Bazan finds himself on his initial full-length (2008 projected) or with his synth-laden side-project Headphones. Perhaps he’ll go back on himself again and put out the holiest bible-thumping madness since Danielson’s Ships and with an insert that folds out into a glorious middle finger.
David Bazan with J. Tillman and The Color Turning at the Glass House, 200 W. 2nd Street, Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us; Monday, 7pm, $10
It’s Hard to Find a Friend (Made in Mexico, later Jade Tree), 1998
Christianity in Jodeci boots, Bazan’s poetic first album is sweetened with words of longing, soul-searching, broken promises, and the most observational insight this side of Remy Zero. Some critics scream that a burlier Elliott Smith is walking down off the mountain, dressed in black, shy and singing about shaved legs. This excites the Fold and Spaceland, and they immediately book Pedro the Lion to further aloofen their patrons.
Winners Never Quit (Jade Tree), 2000
Technically Bazan’s first solo record, this raw concept album began the 90% fiction phase of Bazan’s career, and was to be the beginning of a three-part allegory with titles such as “Slow and Steady Wins the Race,” “Bad Things to Such Good People,” and ironically, given the fact that Bazan would contradict the title a couple of years later, a tune about a murder scene called “Never Leave the Job Half Done.” The unbearable heaviness of being in half-speed, but the most elegiac-pop music this side of Earlimart.
Pedro the Lion
First big salvo to question his faith, Bazan explores marriage and the unlubed consumerist dildo that corporations (dotcoms) use on bent-over American gullibles about 50/50. Pitchfork calls the drum fills on “Rehearsal” “some of the hammiest” since Wayne’s World, but they would later call a three-part concept a “music Decalogue” and lose all credibility. Some of the most thought-provoking songs to date. Digression: Was Charles Manson one of the first alt-Christian folkies?
Achilles Heel (Jade Tree), 2004
Conceptual-schmonceptual! Indie Bazan shifts gears and drops the last of the concept album trilogy—only without the concept. Since this album was supposed to uplift the lingering spirits of Lionheads everywhere, there’s a lot of fussing about this unresolved turn of events. Dark clouds. Storms. “Bands With Managers” upsets bands with managers; “Foregone Conclusions” seems awfully Calvinistic for a Christian, but ride David ride! Great fucking album for anyone not harboring preconceived notions.
Fewer Moving Parts (Jade Tree), 2007
Semi-acrimonious split with T.W. Walsh rests Pedro the Lion in peace, and Bazan takes to answering some things that need answering, like his missive to those bastards from Pitchfork. Whatever direction Bazan is heading here ain’t exactly Christian, but songs like “Cold Beer and Cigarettes” make it obvious that he’s keeping his pecker hard for something theographical. (Chuck Mindenhall)