Style: Melodic slowcore with a folk-rock backbone; compare to Pedro the Lion, Low, Damien Jurado
Top tracks: "Strange Negotiations" "Don't Change," "Virginia"
"Riches I heed not nor man's empty praise," David Bazan sings on "Level with Yourself," the second track on his new album. But don't get lulled into a rendition of "Be Thou My Vision" just yet. Leave it to Bazan to ascribe a subverted meaning to a hymn lyric, completing the couplet with: "[expletive] the gatekeeper, 'cause I'm fine outside the gate."
That duality of tradition and rebellion has always characterized Bazan—ever awkward in Christian and secular circles but respected by segments of both. As a professing Christian in Pedro the Lion, Bazan was rarely mum about his nagging spiritual hangups nor shy about his castigations of evangelicalism. He drank. He cursed. Some believers loved his honesty and openness. Others made him a pariah.
In 2009, Bazan released Curse Your Branches, his first record under his given name. It was a landmark album in which Bazan drew a line in the sand between belief and unbelief, and, shaking his fist at God, chose the latter. (Read why Bazan made that choice here.) For Christian fans it was sad, even tragic. But it was landmark in another way, as well. Curse Your Branches was arguably the best album Bazan has ever made—artfully, meticulously arranged and sung with such raw conviction that listening from a distance was nearly impossible. In painfully candid revelations, Bazan asked tough questions and mourned his inability to find answers in the places he used to look.
Strange Negotiations, recorded with his touring bandmates, further perfects Bazan's lumbering, confessional songwriting. In his ponderous vocal style, Bazan revisits some themes from early Pedro the Lion albums. Leadoff track "Wolves at the Door" (which includes repeated use of the Lord's name in vain) is a churning, anti-corporate screed, and the lulling "Don't Change" exposes everyday American fakery in the tale of a man who tries (half-heartedly) to change, yet each night thinks, "Man, it was a beautiful day to stay the same."
Still, Bazan's abandonment of the evangelical notion of God, and that decision's impact on his life, remain the dominant themes. He wonders about a past friend's "personal salvation" on the lovely, ghostly "Virginia." He indignantly kicks against the goads on "Eating Paper" and "Level with Yourself"—bringing us back to that hymn lyric. Bazan's claim that he's "fine outside the gate" isn't cut and dried. On "People," he sings, "I wanna know, who are these people blaming their sins on the fall," and then admits, "If I'm honest with myself at all, these are my people."
His ongoing spiritual investigation is in every song. Even "Won't Let Go," which plays like a love letter to his wife, is packed with spiritual implications: "Who or what controls the fates of men, I can't say / But I keep arriving safely home to you / And I humbly acknowledge that I won't always get my way / But darling death will have to pry my fingers loose / 'Cause I will not let go of you." It's sweet yet unsettling, confident yet full of doubt—much like the artist himself. If there's one thing Bazan has mastered, it's duality.
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