Artist: David Bazan
Label: Barsuk Records
Due Out: September 1st
It's always interesting to come upon a new release in the tumultuous career of David Bazan. The former Pedro the Lion frontman, once loving God, then questioning that faith, then drowning it in booze and now sort of questioning again, is a tortured soul. But that's what attracts many to his work. As he completes his most recent comeback from the fringes of alcoholism and agnosticism, we finally see the fruits of his labor, Curse Your Branches. Before even listening though, the questions are nearly endless. Is he focusing on God again? Is it genuine? Will it be another flippant, albeit quality piece of work like 2007's Fewer Moving Parts? And so it goes.
"Hard To Be" begins slowly, building on a quaint, but active electronic keyboard part, adding in more instrumentation as it progresses. Once Bazan's voice kicks in though, the album is ceremoniously christened as another tongue-in-cheek effort, lamenting over christianity and his life. I mean, the chorus' main theme is "it's hard to be a decent human being." I think that seals it right there. "Bless This Mess" comes in next as a surprisingly bright, folksy carnival ride, listing off a long series of ironic things to bless. Some are kind of worthwhile, while others are a bit less-rewarding aspects of life, but overall, the concept translates well enough. Then we proceed to where Bazan functions best, his "ol' wheelhouse" for lack of a better term. "Please, Baby, Please" is filled with his most prototypical prose-- complaining about drinking and terrible encounters with women. Bazan could use a hug and a nice girl.
The title track, "Curse Your Branches," as was the case with his previous solo releases' title track, probably best sums up the concept of the record. In a life analysis that's oddly forward-thinking for Bazan, he questions belief (not uncommon, obviously) and derides the hand that feeds, per se ("all fallen leaves should curse their branches"). Following this, we are joined by more anti-belief/religion rhetoric. One of my favorites from Bazan's collection of unreleased tracks has always been the brief "Harmless Sparks," so I was thrilled to see it included on the new album. Now expanded, and including some mock church vocals, it opens using the vehicle of a group of clergymen not being completely faithful to their vow of celibacy. Of course, this leads to drinking and interaction with nuns in one of Bazan's most thorough and obvious condemnations of the organized church. From the negative, we then hit the fun (hard to believe, but it is, sort of) and kind of positive "When We Fell." It's not that it actually focuses on positive themes, but more that Bazan sounds glad to be singing about the subject matter-- another rarity for him.
"Lost My Shape" starts off the closing stretch with an airy and spacious sound reminiscent of Bright Eyes' Cassadaga. As if he's swimming underwater, Bazan's voice seems suspended in space, actually gliding off the piano chords bouncing in the background. It also got me thinking about the video for Radiohead's "No Surprises," which kind of makes sense, given David's well-documented Thom Yorke fandom. "Bearing Witness" instantaneously breaks this mellow feel though, with another western-folk vibe. It's an interesting juxtaposition he employs several times however; presenting negative themes to the backdrop of positive musical arrangements. He's done it before, but for some reason, it seems a lot more frequent, and well-executed on Curse Your Branches than it did on previous tries. Continuing in this vein, "Heavy Breath" keeps momentum up, nearly passing itself for a pop song, if not for several slowed-down sections interspersed within it. Not one to send us off on a positive note, Bazan offers piano ballad "In Stitches." Amazingly, after such a lengthy career, this may be the most honest thing he's ever written. He spills about drinking, troubles raising his daughter and her mother's absence. He even pulls a couple falsetto notes for a stunningly beautiful and heartfelt ending to an album that was seemingly the antithesis until this point.
You always feel bad for David Bazan, but perhaps at no time more than those few closing notes on piano to finish this album. Rarely someone who does something new with his work, and rather, simply expands upon the themes he's always presented us with, Bazan's approach here is both fresh and different. Embracing more folk and western influences than his usual indie rock sensibilities, the album oozes the scenery of the Pacific Northwest. At the same time, however, once can't get too wrapped up in the sentimental aspects to notice a considerable lack of teeth here. There are moments, no doubt, but without a little more bite, Curse Your Branches sometimes blends together a bit too much with its similar themes. Bazan's return is neither a huge success nor a major failure, but maybe it wasn't supposed to be. Just one step in the right direction could be all he needs at the moment. For similarities, please consult Pedro the Lion, Damien Jurado and The Good Life.
Best Track: "Please, Baby, Please"