When I was younger, I believed in God without question.
Life was as my parents and church leaders told me it was, and I had no reason to doubt it. These were simpler times, and I had a simpler faith to match. I wasn’t even aware at the time that there were different Christian denominations. I remember meeting my first Catholic, at a youth group retreat. We approached her with the timid fascination usually reserved for lions at the zoo. She was Like Us, but Not Like Us, if that makes sense – she lived in a different world, and I was happy in mine.
But then a funny thing happened. I started asking questions, and the answers I got back stopped satisfying me. With pointed queries about specific Bible passages – did Noah actually get all those animals onto the Ark? How? Did Jonah really spend three days alive in the belly of a whale? Again, how? – I danced around the big one at the heart of every doubt: is any of this real, or are we just telling each other stories?
Now I’m not sure what to tell people when they ask me about my own faith. I haven’t been to Sunday morning church (except to cover certain services) in more than 15 years. If I’m honest, I don’t believe in the majority of the Bible – most of it strikes me as metaphor, the rest as political more than spiritual. And yet, I still believe in something bigger, something greater than all of us. Call it God, if you like, but I firmly believe when we try to mold that something bigger into our own image, we lose sight of it.
I feel like my doubt has led me to something stronger, something more real. But I’ve been thinking a lot about faith recently, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is my current fascination with David Bazan’s album Curse Your Branches. It’s been described (by virtually everyone who’s reviewed it) as Bazan’s break-up album with God, and I can’t think of a better, more succinct description. It is also one of the most emotionally devastating pieces of work I’ve heard this year.
Bazan is best known as the man behind Pedro the Lion. For years, he wrote some of the most eloquent Christian music you’ll ever hear, particularly on It’s Hard to Find a Friend. But over time, as Pedro’s music got better and harsher, Bazan started spinning morality tales dripping with doubt. He told of a world that just didn’t match up with the happy stories he got growing up, and I could relate. It’s an age-old question – if God is so good, why is life so hard? Why do people die of cancer? Why is one person allowed to ruin the lives of many? Why, if everything is mapped out by some divine creator, do things happen the way they do?
Bazan was once Christianity’s indie darling, a superstar of the Cornerstone Festival set. But Bazan has grown more and more disillusioned with Christianity, and where he was once content to spin stories about that loss of faith, on Curse Your Branches, he tackles it head-on. Bazan describes himself as an agnostic now, but he wrestles with the same doubts and challenges to God that many Christian artists do. Some are simplistic, taking issue with specific points in the Bible, but many are serious questions of theology, honest outpourings of betrayal and rage.
The first track, “Hard to Be,” deals with both kinds. The song is Bazan’s excoriation of the doctrine of original sin, which he believes many use to excuse their behavior. In the second verse, he takes on the story of the garden of Eden, found in Genesis: “Wait just a minute, you expect me to believe that all this misbehaving came from one enchanted tree, and helpless to fight it, we should all be satisfied with this mystical explanation for why the living die, and why it’s hard to be a decent human being…”
The literal detail is easily dismissed – it’s a story, meant to illustrate a point. But Bazan’s problem is deeper. It’s not hard, he says, to be a decent human being, but original sin lets us off the hook – we don’t have to take responsibility for our own depravity. It’s just the way we were made. The last verse finds Bazan talking about his family, who offer “no congratulations” for his newfound beliefs. Some of them, in fact, are “already praying to intercede for me, because it’s hard to be a decent human being.”
But it is hard, as Bazan himself points out in the following songs. He’s struggled with alcoholism for some time – in 2005, he was booted from Cornerstone for being drunk, according to published reports – and “Please Baby Please” is one of the most harrowing and clear-eyed songs about that particular addiction I’ve ever heard. Over a jangly rhythm, Bazan recounts discussions with his wife about his drinking, and then, in the terrifying final verse, imagines passing that trait on to his daughter – “Sunrise at the county lockup, now our baby’s 23, she was out late drinking, killed a mother of three…”
Most of this record is given over to Bazan’s angry punch-ups with God, and it’s the kind of album that could only be made by someone who once fervently, unquestioningly believed. “When We Fell” is a simple rocker with a complex set of questions at its center, all of which boil down to this: is creation a setup? Did God make us this way, knowing we would fail him, and we would ruin what he’s given us? “If you knew what would happen, and you made us just the same, then you, my lord, can take the blame,” he sings at the song’s end, but it’s the accusation in the middle that hits hardest: “Did you push us when we fell?”
It’s actually an amazing question, one theologians have been wrestling with for centuries. “In Stitches,” the last song, contains another. Bazan brings up Job, who, in the Old Testament book that bears his name, was the subject of a bet between God and Satan. God took everything away from Job, then tested him to see if he’d remain faithful. Job did, but then had the temerity to ask God why these things were done to him.
Here’s Bazan: “When Job asked you the question, you responded, ‘Who are you to challenge your creator?’ Well, if that one part is true, it makes you sound defensive, like you had not thought it through enough to have an answer, like you might have bit off more than you could chew.”
And there’s the heart of Curse Your Branches: Bazan is saying he doesn’t know if God exists, but if he does, and he’s like the Bible depicts him, then he’s not worth liking, let alone worshipping. Bazan castigates God for bullying his mother with “fear of damnation” in “When We Fell,” and in the title track, he posits that all fallen leaves should curse their branches “for not letting them decide where they should fall, and not letting them refuse to fall at all.”
All of this can sound like a theology course, but it doesn’t come off that way at all, because Bazan makes everything intensely personal. This is a real struggle for him. On “In Stitches,” he admits that all of his drinking is to drive God from his mind, and says he still can hear his voice in his head. His solution, in the upbeat “Bearing Witness,” is to “let go of what you know and honor what exists,” by which he means his family and the world around him. But it’s clearly tearing him up inside, to no longer believe in this thing that once defined him.
I have never been interested in Christian music for its own sake, any more than I am interested in Satanic music for its own sake. What I am interested in is people – artists who filter the world through their own experiences, and write about it honestly. That’s why I like Christian artists like Terry Taylor, and Mike Roe, and the Choir. They write about the world and their own personal faiths the way they see them, with no cheerleading or pat, simple answers.
And that’s why I like David Bazan, who has always done the same thing. Curse Your Branches is a particularly difficult album for me, not because of any faith I have held on to, or lost, but because Bazan’s loss of faith hurts him so very much. He is angry, he feels betrayed, he is drinking to forget. Like all separations that mean anything, this one is painful and impossibly difficult, and Bazan makes you feel his anguish, his confusion and loss, with every elegant and well-chosen word.
The music on this record is typically simple, but the production is nice and dense, and the focus is on the voice and lyrics, where it ought to be. What’s surprising, if you’ve never heard David Bazan before, is how happy the music often seems, especially on heartbreakers like “Please Baby Please” and “When We Fell.” The joyous epiphany of “Bearing Witness” is the only one that deserves its almost jolly musical backing. Bazan does mirror the agony of the lyrics here and there, especially on “Hard to Be” and “In Stitches,” but for the most part, his dramatically different perspective hasn’t altered what he does musically.
Still, Curse Your Branches is a very difficult listen, especially if you’ve been following David Bazan’s career from the beginning. I think it’s a brilliant, honest, brave album, but it’s tough. I’ve been through many of the same struggles Bazan voices on this album, and in many ways, I’m still going through them. But in my head, they were never this elegant or this painful. I’m paraphrasing one of my favorite television shows, but Curse Your Branches is so beautiful it hurts to listen to.
Some of Bazan’s old-school fans might be turned off by the forthright, searching material on this album. But I’m reminded of this year’s Cornerstone festival. Organizers invited Bazan back for the first time since 2005, knowing full well the content of this new album, and he played to a packed house at the Gallery Stage. By the end, some audience members were reduced to tears, and festival heads said they were gratified to see such a moment happen at this festival – doubt, pain and unbelief are part of the experience, they said. It’s as if they were acknowledging that David Bazan may be done with God, but God isn’t done with David Bazan.
As for me, I keep returning to one passage here, in the title track: “Why are some hell bent on there being an answer, while some are quite content to answer, ‘I don’t know.’” Bazan seems to be in the second category, and I’m right there with him. I don’t know. That’s why this searing, probing album is so fascinating to me. Bazan is not asking new questions, but they are, and have always been, questions worth asking. And when I asked them, I always appreciated the people who told me, “I don’t know.” Likewise, I have always understood when that answer leads to loss of faith, and have always been impressed when it doesn’t, when one can look at the world with open eyes and still believe in something beyond it.
So yes, Curse Your Branches is David Bazan’s break-up album with God. And it’s brilliant. And it hurts. And I hope he keeps chronicling these struggles with the unflinching honesty he’s shown here. And I hope one day, he finds peace.
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You may not have noticed, but it’s been an incredible three months for new music. Below you will find the Third Quarter Report, essentially what my top 10 list would look like were I forced to put it out there now. As you’ll see, everything but the top four has been eliminated. Music since June has been that good.
I even have three more honorable mentions, not counting the ones that made June’s list, which included Animal Collective, Duncan Sheik, Tinted Windows, Loney Dear, British Sea Power, Richard Swift and The Bird and the Bee. Killer albums all, but no longer on this list. Add three more honorables to the pile: Owl City’s Ocean Eyes, Muse’s The Resistance, and the Black Crowes’ Before the Frost. Of course, everything could change in the next few months, but at present, none of those albums are on the list.
Here are the ones that made it, as of now. The Third Quarter Report:
10. The Dead Weather, Horehound.
9. Mutemath, Armistice.
8. David Bazan, Curse Your Branches.
7. Imogen Heap, Ellipse.
6. David Mead, Almost and Always.
5. Bat for Lashes, Two Suns.
4. The Antlers, Hospice.
3. Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown.
2. Quiet Company, Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon.
1. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love.
Yep, Colin Meloy and his merry band are still holding on. And yes, three of the top four albums are cohesive concept records. Weird year.
Next week, lots of options, including 7 Worlds Collide, Alice in Chains and Hope Sandoval. And now that I’ve placed it in the top 10 list, I should probably review Imogen Heap’s album, yeah? Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.