"Can you save my soul?" one unruly audience member shouted out during David Bazan's private press gig Tuesday night at New York's Pianos. The reply was curt and unsmiling. "No."
An ugly duckling in the homogeneous world of Christian music, Bazan has never been about saving souls. In his band Pedro the Lion he would preach questioning to the choir, forcing the faithful to reexamine their (and his) beliefs. He swore onstage, criticized God and Christians, and generally probed deeper than the "Our God Is an Awesome God" crew. A devoted group of Christian rock kids adored him; the rest were convinced he was traveling the road to damnation.
Today Bazan is farther from soul-saving than ever. Pedro the Lion is no more and with it has vanished what little faith Bazan had left. A July article in the Chicago Reader detailed the rocker's fall from grace on the occasion of him playing the Cornerstone Christian music festival as an, if not nonbeliever, at least a skeptic. His newest and best record, Curse Your Branches, details his journey from certainty to doubt. At his first full-band show at Pianos Tuesday, he let the songs do the talking.
"With the threat of hell hanging over my head like a halo," he sang in "When We Fell." "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."
This leads into the song's pivotal question: "Did you push us when we fell?" (the lyrics on Bazan's website are all presented in lower-case, perhaps to avoid the thorny issue of whether to capitalize the name of a deity he's no longer sure exists). That line encapsulates Bazan's struggle -- he no longer believes in God, yet he is still talking to Him, blaming Him for his nonbelief.
Bazan played through the entire record at Pianos sans one tune, "Harmless Sparks." One song after another artfully described his upbringing in a fire-and-brimstone brand of Christianity that left him too scared to ask the important questions. "Too full of prophecy and fear to see the revelation right in front of me," he sung in "Bearing Witness." "So sick and tired of trying to make the pieces fit / That's not what bearing witness is."
This sort of poetry could quickly become stifling were it not for the rocking four-piece band behind him, channeling U2 guitar echoes on "Lost My Shape" and Fountains of Wayne poppy crescendos on "The Devil Is Beating His Wife," one of two tunes not off the new album. Bazan's powerfully melodic voice glided over the songs' stop-start rhythms, hardly needing the microphone in front of him even when he leaped into a powerful falsetto cry.
Bazan's a singer, songwriter, and top-notch bass player to boot. Though the focus was on lyrics, he was content to delve into extended jams such as the fuzzed-out intro to "Hard to Be" or the rolling drum duel in "When We Fell." If Bazan's earlier material (and that of just about everyone else labeled a "singer-songwriter" these days) has a failing, it's that without a catchy musical underpinning his lyrical density crosses over into dreariness. Not so on his newest work, which rocks as hard as it ponders, adding hummable hooks to his confessions of confusion.
As has already become all too obvious, it is difficult to resist the temptation to lyric-quote ad nauseum when reviewing Bazan, and for good reason. Since Curse Your Branches cements his reputation as one of the most thoughtful, most poetic lyricists working today, please indulge me one more quote.
"I might as well admit it," he sings in "In Stitches, "like i even have a choice / The crew have killed the captain, but they still can hear his voice."
Whether God exists or not, Bazan is right about one thing: the introspective thinking-man's Christian rocker (ex-Christian rocker?) has no choice. He has spent the past ten years chronicling his faith, why should he not do the same for his doubt?SET LIST
Hard to Be
Bless This Mess
Please, Baby, Please
Curse Your Branches
The Devil Is Beating His Wife
When We Fell
Lost My Shape
How I Remember
(photo by Kurt Christensen)