A Random (P)review of David Bazan’s “Strange Negotiations”
I should wait and put a proper set of thoughts together on the new David Bazan album, Strange Negotiations, that comes out on May 24 for regular folks, but which I received early due to the fact that I’m among an elite corps of Bazan supporters who actually chipped in some cash to finance the recording of this album (thanks to Glen of Someone Tell Me the Story for the heads up on this opportunity). However, I’m not seeing much time in the weeks ahead for anything much more than a rather random collection of thoughts after about 5-6 full listens…so why not just put it out there now?
A brief background on Bazan: he had a band called Pedro the Lion back in the 90’s-00’s that was pretty much the coolest thing in the world for a young evangelical Christian to like, though you were never sure if you were supposed to think of them as a “Christian band” or not (which, ultimately, is a good problem to have–DEATH TO CCM). Bazan’s songwriting was always pretty cutting toward the church and hypocritical Christians, but there was a latent tenderness and spiritual longing underneath (see “The Secret of the Easy Yoke”) along with clever storytelling and wordsmithery (all of Control), and an ear for the lovely juxtaposition of vocal & instrumental melody. Plus, some of his songs REALLY indie-rocked unbelievably much (see “Magazine”) and he would cuss with great aplomb (most brilliantly on “Foregone Conclusions”). But his voice was rather sleep-inducingly mellow, his wit often a bit too acidic, and he seemed like his prophetic voice could often switch into Pharisaic condemnation or just plain whiny petulance. Then, he killed PTL and did an electronic album called (and by?) Headphones that had some great cuts…and some not so great. Finally, he came out under his own name with an EP (Fewer Moving Parts) that was all depressingly navel-gazing and narcissistic fantasy–I wondered if this would be the end of David Bazan…self-implosion.
Yet he came back with a full-length album Curse Your Branches in 2009 that was a masterpiece of him losing his faith; it is well worth the purchase & repeated listens, not only for the masterfully poignant/angry way he processes the experience of divorcing himself from God/Christianity, but also for his return to all the great songwriting and musicianship he’d evidenced in the past. And that, in short, brings us to his second solo LP: Strange Negotiations.
Some random observations:
- Bazan’s voice is no longer sleep-inducing…it’s a sleep-DEPRIVED and mildly intoxicated growl and rasp (like a philosophical Kenny Rogers gone to seed) with certain words carrying a whiskey-flavored drawl that is becoming a Bazan trademark
- I once heard it said that Bob Dylan wrote two kinds of songs: one for Him (God) and one for “her” (the elusive love interest, I took it to mean). I think Bazan writes one kind of song: for himself. His songs have become a Molotov cocktail of art therapy, bully pulpit, and bipolar self-aggrandizement/self-loathing. He is a one-man 12-step group, endlessly telling his own story to himself and we just happen to be passing by the room. Or he’s like a prophet who grew to love the taste of fiery denunciation, but forgot his audience and wandered off into canyons muttering woe and condemnation to the walls. I remember thinking a few albums back that Bazan needed to get out of his own head, seeming like he was on an infinite, introspective spiral, destined for a solipsistic hell consisting of his own echo in an empty bottle. I’m not sure in this album if he’s still heading there or on his way back, yet I still sense that damning self-absorption. And yet, somehow, in the midst of all of that, he still sees things and says things in such a powerful, brilliant, and infectious way that I can’t help but listen.
- I wondered if this would be his “post-Christian” album and a number of songs confirm this, but I am hesitant to read that into every song. It will be interesting to see if he will ever make an album that contains no reference to his disdain for faith, conservatives, or his upbringing. He definitely seems to want to alienate the final remnants of the old Christian music store fan-base with the naked chick on the cover, his transition in one song from the lyrics of “Be Thou My Vision” (which PTL covered on one album) to the line, “Fuck the gatekeeper, cause I’m fine outside the gate”, and repeated references to his new found way of seeing the world, free from the provincial boundaries of Christianity. Again, it’s legitimate for him to process his rejection of faith, but he does it with such monomania. Encountering the story of Captain Ahab’s hatred of & fixation with the white whale in Moby-Dick is powerful, but you probably don’t care to read sequel after sequel telling the same story, right?
In any case, this is supposed to be thoughts about the album, not a psychological study of Bazan. The songs basically have two modes on Strange Negotiations: crunchy electric guitars chording over a tight and driving rhythm, or reflectively quiet/ethereal, with the record heavily leaning to the former. I offer below some thoughts on most of the tracks on the album, somewhat ordered according to how much I liked them:
- “People“–a hybrid of the two song modes, this is one part acoustic wistfulness looking back on a childhood in the church and one part scorching rocker about how he’s moved beyond all of that. Besides being a beautiful tone/mood contrast, I think I love this because it’s about coming to terms with one’s heritage as a conservative evangelical Christian (“you are my people”) even as he talks about the cost of being a “truth-teller” in that community (which strikes one as rather patronizing, but still authentic to his experience). It’s pretty judgmental overall, but it still captures that old balance between longing and disappointment that he had with PTL.
- “Level with Myself“–covering some of the same ground as the previous song, this melodic rocker pokes at the image of waking up in the morning and having a “quiet time” reading Scripture, but feeling like you have to “sell it to yourself.” In contrast, he says he wants to “level with myself…my friends…and my kin…and be at peace with them”–which I take to mean that he’s trying to come to terms with the fact that he doesn’t believe anymore and he needs others to accept this as well.
- “Don’t Change“–this is an example of when I think Bazan dips into self-loathing, mocking himself and his efforts at self-improvement. It’s got a lovely vocal and guitar melody over a molasses thick bass line.
- “Strange Negotiations“–haunting (ethereal mode), timeless ballad with echoes of Scripture (prodigal son, writing on the wall, cutting off one’s limb) about inter-personal conflicts. Includes a lovely acoustic breakdown with Bazan’s lonely howl wordlessly communicating the pain of relational struggle…
- “Won’t Let Go“–what does Bazan have now that he’s chucked his faith and alienated himself from “his people”? This song points to his marriage as the new anchor in his life. Another ethereal mode with the EBow all over it.
- “Virginia“–this is the most poignant song on the album, looking back from a position of having lost faith at someone else in the family who was “unsaved” (“we wondered about your personal salvation/was it heaven or hell you saw when your eyes closed?”), but who modeled a transcendence beyond religious categories (“you smiled at us/floating high above the question/like you knew something we didn’t know”) that Bazan now has an appreciation for. This is a delicate piece, full of deep regret at time wasted on such pettiness (from his new perspective)–which you can hear most tenderly when Bazan’s voice cracks at 3:36…
- “Wolves at the Door“–this seemed to be about religion again, but it could also be more broadly about conservative values. This opens the album and sets the condemnatory/accepting synthesis with the line, “You’re a goddamn fool…and I love you.” This is the last of the songs that I actually liked…but that makes 7 out of 10, which sounds like a pretty strong record if you ask me!
If these comments seem very critical, let me balance them all by saying that I think Bazan is one of the best living songwriters and generally a brilliant thinker and lyricist. I will keep buying his work as long as he puts it out, but I also need to be honest to vocalize my concerns about his self-destructive fixation on himself. Perhaps this is one of those cases where unhealthy neuroses lead to great art. I don’t know, cause I can’t do what he does.
However, I need to end my ruminations here…but I would love, so very much, to hear YOUR thoughts on this album when it comes out (or if you already have it).
Here’s the actual tracklist…
1. Wolves at the Door
2. Level With Yourself
3. Future Past
6. Eating Paper
8. Don’t Change
9. Strange Negotiations
10. Won’t Let Go