"People used to compare him to Jesus," says a backstage manager as David Bazan walks offstage, guitar in hand. "But not so much anymore."
It's Thursday, July 2, and Bazan has just finished his set at Cornerstone, the annual Christian music festival held on a farm near Bushnell, Illinois. He hasn't betrayed his crowd the way Dylan did when he went electric—this is something very different. The kids filling the 1,500-capacity tent know their Jesus from their Judas. There was a time when Bazan's fans believed he was speaking, or rather singing, the Word. Not so much anymore.
As front man for Pedro the Lion, the band he led from 1995 till 2005, Bazan was Christian indie rock's first big crossover star, predating Sufjan by nearly a decade and paving the way for the music's success outside the praise circuit. But as he straddled the secular and spiritual worlds, Bazan began to struggle with his faith. Unable to banish from his mind the possibility that the God he'd loved and prayed to his whole life didn't exist, he started drinking heavily. In '05, the last time he played Cornerstone, he was booted off the grounds for being shitfaced, a milk jug full of vodka in his hand. (The festival is officially dry.)
I worked as Bazan's publicist from 2000 till 2004. When I ran into him in April—we were on a panel together at the Calvin College Festival of Faith & Music in Grand Rapids—I hadn't seen him or talked to him in five and a half years. The first thing he said to me was "I'm not sure if you know this, but my relationship with Christ has changed pretty dramatically in the last few years."
He went on to explain that since 2004 he's been flitting between atheist, skeptic, and agnostic, and that lately he's hovering around agnostic—he can't flat-out deny the presence of God in the world, but he doesn't exactly believe in him either.
Pedro the Lion won a lot of secular fans in part because Bazan's lyrics—keen examinations of faith, set to fuzzed-out guitar hooks—have a through-a-glass-darkly quality, acknowledging the imperfection of human understanding rather than insisting on the obviousness of an absolute truth. As the post-9/11 culture wars began to heat up, Pedro the Lion albums took a turn toward the parabolic: an outraged Bazan churned out artful songs about what befalls the righteous and the folly of those who believe God is on their side.
Bazan's relationship with the divine started out pretty uncomplicated, though. Raised outside Seattle in the Pentecostal church where his father was the music director, he hewed closely to Christian orthodoxy, attended Bible college, and married at 23. Now 33, he didn't do a lot of thinking about politics until the 1999 WTO protests. "Growing up, Christianity didn't feel oppressive for the most part, because it was filtered through my parents. They were and are so sincere, and I saw in them a really pure expression of unconditional love and service," he says. "Once I stepped away, I could see the oppression of it."
Bazan's Curse Your Branches, due September 1 on Barsuk, is a visceral accounting of what happened after that. It's a harrowing breakup record—except he's dumping God, Jesus, and the evangelical life. It's his first full-length solo album and also his most autobiographical effort: its drunken narratives, spasms of spiritual dissonance, and family tensions are all scenes from the recent past.
Bazan says he tried to Band-Aid his loss of faith and the painful end of Pedro the Lion with about 18 months of "intense" drinking. "If I didn't have responsibilities, if I wasn't watching [my daughter] Ellanor, I had a deep drive to get blacked out," he says. But as he made peace with where he found himself, the compulsion to get obliterated began to wane. On Curse Your Branches Bazan sometimes directs the blame and indignation at himself, other times at Jesus and the faith. He's mourning what he's lost, and he knows there's no going back.
"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," he sings on the title track, with more than a touch of fuck-you in his voice. On "When We Fell," backed by a galloping beat and Wilson-boys harmonies, he calls faith a curse put on him by God: "If my mother cries when I tell her what I discovered / Then I hope she remembers she told me to follow my heart / And if you bully her like you've done me with fear of damnation / Then I hope she can see you for what you are."
The album closer, "In Stitches," may be the best song Bazan's ever written. It's the most emotionally bare piece on the album and as close as he comes to a complete thesis:This brown liquor wets my tongue
He follows it with an even more devastating verse, confessing that his efforts to erase God have failed:
I might as well admit it
Like I've even got a choice
The crew have killed the captain
But they still can hear his voice
A shadow on the water
A whisper in the wind
On long walks my with daughter
Who is lately full of questions
The second "about you" comes in late, in a keening falsetto, and those two words carry his entire tangle of feelings—anger, desire, confusion, grief.
Since the jug-of-vodka incident, Bazan has kept a pretty low profile, doing a couple modest solo tours and releasing an EP of raw-sounding songs on Barsuk. Pedro the Lion was a reliable paycheck—most of its albums sold in the neighborhood of 50,000 copies, and the group toured regularly, drawing 400 to 600 people a night. His most recent tour couldn't have been more different: Bazan doesn't have a road band put together yet for his solo stuff, but he couldn't afford to wait for Curse Your Branches to come out. So he found another way to keep in touch with his most devoted fans, booking 60 solo shows in houses and other noncommercial spaces. He played intimate acoustic sets to maybe 40 people each night, at $20 a ticket, and took questions between songs—some of them, unsurprisingly, about the tough spiritual questions his new material raises.
Despite his outspokenness on those questions, he was invited back to Cornerstone for the first time this year.
"I know David has a long history of being a seeker and trying to navigate through his faith. Cornerstone is open to that," says John Herrin, the festival's director. "We welcome plenty of musicians who may not identify themselves as Christians but are artists with an ongoing connection to faith. . . . We're glad to have him back. We don't give up on people; we don't give up on the kids here who are seeking, trying to figure out what they don't believe and what they do. This festival was built on patience."
At Cornerstone, where I catch up with him behind the fair-food midway, Bazan laughs when I suggest that he's there trying to save the Christians. "I am. I am really invested, because I came up in it and I love a lot of evangelical Christians—I care what happens with the movement," he says. "The last 30 years of it have been hijacked; the boomer evangelicals, they were seduced in the most embarrassing and scandalous way into a social, political, and economical posture that is the antithesis of Jesus's teaching."
With Curse Your Branches and in his recent shows, he's inverting the usual call to witness: "You might be the only Christian they ever meet." He's the doubter's witness, and he might be the only agnostic some of these Christian kids ever really listen to.
When I talk to some of those kids in the merch tent the day after Bazan's set, many of them seem to be trying to spin the new songs, straining to categorize them as Christian so they can justify continuing to listen to them. One fan says it's good that Bazan is singing about the perils of sin, "particularly sexual sin." Another interprets the songs as a witness of addiction, the testimony of the stumbling man.
Cultural critic and progressive Christian author David Dark, who since 2003 has become one of Bazan's closest friends, claims that Bazan's skepticism and anger are in line with biblical tradition. "I doubt this is what your average Cornerstone attendee means, but when David is addressing his idea of his God, the one that he fears exists but refuses to believe in, when he is telling him, 'If this is the situation with us and you, then fuck you—the people who love you, I hope they see you for who you are,' when he's doing that, he is at his most biblical. If we are referring to the deep strains of complaint and prayers and tirades against conceptions of God in the Bible—yes, then in that way he's in your Christian tradition. But I disagree that he's an advocate for the biblical."
When I tell Bazan that there are kids at Cornerstone resisting the clear message of his songs, he's surprised. "That someone could listen to what I was saying and think that I was saying it apologetically—like, in a way that characterizes [doubt] as the wrong posture—bums me out, but that's pretty high-concept given how I'm presenting this stuff. So I have to hand it to someone who can keep on spinning what is so clearly something else." He pauses for a long moment, then adds, "I don't want to be that misunderstood."
During the two days I follow Bazan and his fans around the Cornerstone campus, though, it becomes clear that he isn't really misunderstood at all. Everyone knows what he's singing about—what's happening is that his listeners are taking great pains to sidestep the obvious. "Well, his songs have always been controversial," one says, but when asked to pinpoint the source of the controversy suggests it's because he swears—nothing about not believing in hell or not taking the Bible as God's word. Bazan's agnosticism is the elephant in the merch tent.
Fans rhapsodize about Bazan's work: they love his honesty, they love how they can relate to him, how he's not proselytizing, how he's speaking truth—but they don't tend to delve into what exactly that truth might be. Brice Evans, a 24-year-old from Harrisburg, Illinois, who came to Cornerstone specifically to see Bazan's set, dances artfully around it. "He's showing a side of Christianity that no other band shows," Evans says. "He's trying to get a message across that's more than that."
It's hard to say if anybody is conscious of the irony: the "side of Christianity" Bazan sings about is disenfranchisement from it.
"I think with Curse Your Branches David expands the space of the talk-about-able," says Dark. "It's not confessional in the sense that he's down on himself and trying to confess something to God in hopes of being forgiven. I think that's what crowds are trying to make of him, but they're going to have a tougher time when they get the record."
Bazan is known for his dialogues with fans, and during his set he's affable, taking questions from the crowd. Tonight's audience, openly anxious and awed, keeps it light at first: "Would you rather be a werewolf or a vampire?" Then he opens with the new album's lead track, "Hard to Be," a sobering song with an especially hard-hitting second verse:
Wait just a minute
You expect me to believe
That all this misbehaving
Grew from one enchanted tree?
And helpless to fight it
We should all be satisfied
With this magical explanation
For why the living die
And why it's hard to be
Hard to be, hard to be
A decent human being?
By the time he finishes those lines I can see half a dozen people crying; a woman near me is trembling and sobbing. Others have their heads in their hands. Many look stunned, but no one leaves. When the song ends, the applause is thunderous.
After Bazan plays a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," reinstating the sacrilegious verses left out of the best-known versions, someone shouts, "How's your soul?" Bazan looks up from tuning his guitar and says, "My soul? Oh, it's fine." This elicits an "Amen, brother!" from the back of the tent.
Following Bazan's set a throng of fans—kids, young women with babies on their hips, a handful of youth pastors—queues up around the side of the stage to talk to him. Some kids want hugs and ask geeked-out questions, but just as many attempt to feel him out in a sly way. "I really wished you had played 'Lullaby,'" says one kid, naming a very early Pedro the Lion song that's probably the most worshipful in Bazan's catalog. A few gently bait him, referring to scripture the way gang members throw signs, eager for a response that will reveal where Bazan is really at.
During discussions like this Bazan doesn't usually get into the subtle barometric fluctuations in his relationship with Jesus, but that still leaves room for plenty of postshow theological talk. "This process feels necessary and natural for these people," he says. "They're in a precarious situation—maybe I am too. To maintain their particular posture, they have to figure out: Do they need to get distance from me, or is it just safe enough to listen to? I empathize as people are trying to gauge, 'Is this guy an atheist? Because I heard he was.'"
Bazan has chosen sides, but old ideas linger. "Some time ago, we were discussing [the Pedro the Lion song] 'Foregone Conclusions,'" Dark says. "I told him I was impressed with the lines 'You were too busy steering conversation toward the Lord / To hear the voice of the Spirit / Begging you to shut the fuck up / You thought it must be the devil / Trying to make you go astray / Besides it could not have been the Lord / Because you don't believe He talks that way.' I thought, what a liberating word for people who've been shoved around by all manner of brainwash. But also Dave's doing something even more subtle, as many interpret the unforgivable sin to be blasphemy against the Holy Spirit—confusing the voice of God for the voice of the devil—so there's a whole 'nother level of theological devastation going on in the song.
"When I brought it up, he laughed and told me he still worries about going to hell for that one. He knows that it's horribly funny that he feels that way, but he won't lie by saying he's entirely over it. He's both 100 percent sincere and 100 percent ironically detached. He's haunted even as he pushes forward, saying what he feels even though he half fears doing so will be cosmically costly for him."
After a long few years in the wilderness, Bazan seems happy—though he's still parsing out his beliefs, he's visibly relieved to be out and open about where he's not at. "It's more comfortable for me to be agnostic," he says. "There's less internal tension by far—that's even with me duking it out with my perception of who God is on a pretty regular basis, and having a lot of uncertainty on that level. For now, just being is enough. Whether things happen naturally, completely outside an author, or whether the dynamics of earth and people are that way because God created them—or however you want to credit it—if you look around and pay attention and observe, there is enough right here to know how to act, to know how to live, to be at peace with one another.
"Because I grew up believing in hell and reckoning, there is a voice in me that says, 'That might not cut it with the man upstairs,' but I think that that has to be enough. For me it is enough."
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