David Bazan, Curse Your Branches
By Ryan Hamm
August 31, 2009
Anyone who's followed David Bazan over his 12-year career has known that he's always had a ... tense relationship with faith and Christianity. Even on his debut album with Pedro the Lion, the Whole EP, Bazan touched on topics that would have been anathema to much of Christian music in the mid-'90s, including heroin addiction. Over the next decade, his releases became increasingly darker, dealing with more and more difficult subject matter. And in general, Bazan seemed to handle the material well, usually concluding on an "everything's broken, but maybe there's hope" note (specifically in Control's "Rejoice").
But on Pedro the Lion's last release, Achilles Heel, that seemed to change. The darkness was stronger, the critiques of Christianity seemed cutting—and even cutting beyond Bazan's characteristic honesty about the hypocrisy he saw. The album made it clear he was sick of the whole "Christian or not" line of questioning, and wanted to put it rest.
With Curse Your Branches, the questions may have not been put to rest, but they're certainly different questions. In an interview withRELEVANT earlier this summer, Bazan said, "At the end of it all, I still believe, but I don’t believe that particular narrative." This new album still contains Bazan's questions, but is more an intensely autobiographical document of what happens when a person loses their faith. It also contains Bazan's most naked songwriting to date, detailing his struggles with alcoholism, his relationships with ex-bandmates, and the effect of his his disbelief and alcohol abuse on his wife and child. Along the way, he naturally turns his incisive eye toward the Church and belief in God, asking questions that he's never seemed to find a satisfying answer to.
Curse Your Branches starts off with what might be its mission statement, "Hard to Be." The song recounts the story of the fall of humanity in Genesis, asking "Wait just a minute; you expect me to believe / that all this misbehaving grew from one enchated tree?" This seems to be at the heart of Bazan's loss of belief—he knows all of the "answers," has asked further questions and has found the conclusions wanting. "Lost My Shape" chronicles how Bazan feels: "You used to feel like the forest fire burning / but now you feel like a child throwing tantrums / and then some / You used to feel like the prodigal returning / but now you hate what you've made / and you want to watch it burn."
Bazan also chronicles how his faith has had too many tiny holes punched in it that seemed inconsequential, but proved to be devastating in "Harmless Sparks"—and suggests that the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal might have been one of those tiny holes. He takes God to task on "When We Fell," with angry accusations ("Did you push us when we fell?") set over a curiously upbeat doo-wop rock tune.
The accusations aren't always against God; Bazan doesn't let himself off the hook either. "Please, Baby, Please" finds him calling his wife from Atlanta, begging for a drink after being "three days sober." On "Bless This Mess," he wonders if his daughter will grow up to hate "the smell of booze on my breath" like her mother. It seems that Bazan's arrival at his lack of belief hasn't necessarily resulted in peace for him.
Musically, Curse Your Branches should be familiar to fans of Pedro the Lion. The songs are primarily guitar-driven pop tunes, with some ragged edges. The sound is a little fuller than past albums, with production highlighting Bazan's voice. The ballads are still as aching (especially "Lost My Shape" and "In Stiches") and Bazan still knows how to marry a melody to lyrics that are profound (and profoundly depressing).
The linchpin of the album is the final track, "In Stiches." In it, Bazan recounts how he essentially drinks to forget about God; he also wonders what to tell his daughter, who asks him about God. He ends with a rumination on Job, specifically Job 38: "It makes you [God] 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." Bazan's loss of faith is tremendously sad, and obviously is sad to the singer, too. But he can certainly be commended for his impassioned and authentic look at his own soul and its journey of questioning and doubt.