David Bazan, an artist who continually questions the dominant narratives in Christianity and challenges his listeners to question themselves through his music, is working on a new project with Passenger String Quartet. Together, they will be releasing a new album that takes some of Bazan’s solo songs and some that he did with Pedro the Lion, and they will put a new spin on them by reworking the songs for strings. Passenger String Quartet has worked with a variety of musicians from Suzanne Vega to Macklemore, so the quartet that describes itself as “an avant-garde, experimental neo-classical group” should bring a new aesthetic to Bazan’s music. The combination of Bazan’s lyrics and the string accompaniment gives a more pronounced sense of melancholy and darkness that was present in the lyrics, but now has an added depth and pervasiveness. Songs like “Bands with Managers” and “Strange Negotiations” become a lament for something lost or given up with the addition of strings.
During this tour, David Dondero will be opening for the combined main act. More than just a warm-up, he is a highly acclaimed musician in his own right. In 2006 he was named one of the best living songwriters by NPR. Robin Hilton, who wrote the NPR article, says, “...I keep pushing him and hoping he'll be recognized for the brilliant artist he is. Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst is often cited as one of the best songwriters making music today, and he's credited David Dondero for his whole sound.” His style, which is mainly guitar and vocals only, seems more light than Bazan at first listen, but he questions his listeners as well. In the song “Rothko Chapel” he writes,
your heart is like the rothko chapel, cold dark void yet simple and intriguing
somewhat comforting, got me believing almost anything
there was this line by charlie parker, probably worth remembering:
"if you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn, chances are you'll never be reborn"
He prompts listeners to look more closely at their actions and intentions to find what they have been overlooking about themselves. It is because of his relentless and perceptive questioning that he makes it to a list that includes Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and Sufjan Stevens.
- Avery Johnson
Before artists like Sufjan Stevens were becoming hits, the band Pedro the Lion stalked the line between secular and Christian. A Seattle-based, indie rock band, Pedro the Lion’s music largely came from the artistic work of David Bazan. Playing almost every instrument and writing the witty lyrics that engaged faith and politics, Bazan created the sound and the soul of the group. Now, about five years after Pedro was put down, Bazan is back singing about God.
Only this time, he’s not quiet so sure that he thinks of him.
Bazan’s second solo album, Curse Your Branches, has been dubbed his break-up album with God. When asked about this, Bazan qualifies the album summery by saying he was “breaking up with a particular narrative about God.” Which narrative, you may ask? Well, it might just be the one you hold.
In the track “When We Fell,” he describes the narrative he grew up with in the Pentecostal church by singing: "With the threat of hell hanging over my head like a halo, I was made to believe in a couple of beautiful truths, that eventually had the effect of completely unraveling the powerful curse put on me by you."
Bazan does not pull any punches with Curse Your Branches. He asks every question his former evangelical-self has and makes no apologies for it—questions like, “You expect me to believe that all this misbehaving grew from one enchanted tree?” and “Did you push us, when we fell?”
Curse Your Branches may ask questions that feel heretical to a number of the faithful, but it is not the sound of Bazan turning atheist. In an interview with rednoW.com last spring, Bazan explained his current stance on God this way:
I have to accept that [God] exists, that I perceive him to... that's my ground zero, my reality... for me the question is, “Who could he be?” Who could he possibly be given the data that exists? And what could his intentions toward us be? What could his relationship with creation be? What sort of interventions might he be engaged in?
As David Dark explains in his book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, an agnostic is someone who doesn’t know what they believe about God, not someone who doesn’t believe in God at all. Dark says this means we’re all agnostics. On some level, we all do not know what to believe about God.
For Bazan, being “out” as an agnostic is a great relief. As he told music writer Jessica Hopper,
It's more comfortable for me to be agnostic. There's less internal tension by far—that's even with me duking it out with my perception of who God is on a pretty regular basis, and having a lot of uncertainty on that level. For now, just being is enough. Whether things happen naturally, completely outside an author, or whether the dynamics of earth and people are that way because God created them—or however you want to credit it—if you look around and pay attention and observe, there is enough right here to know how to act, to know how to live, to be at peace with one another.
Curse Your Branches is public profession of doubt. It is the rock-and-roll sound of an agnostic. And therefore, if David Dark is right, one some level, this is our album. These are our questions. These are our doubts. These are our songs.
Bazan may not know what to think about God right now, but he knows very well how to communicate his confusion. Both the notes and lyrics of Curse Your Branches are inspired and together have created one of the best albums of 2009. On March 30, Bazan will bring his band to the Ladies Literary Club to play the songs he previewed, alone with his guitar, on the same stage at the Festival of Faith and Music 2009. We welcome this honest searcher back to Calvin College for a night of thought provoking music.
- Eric Kuiper