[BLANK SLATE] David Bazan doesn't know what to tell you about God. After nine Pedro the Lion releases, a decade as indie rock's scholastic defender of Christianity, and hosting theological QA sessions at every show—followed by a very public loss of faith, a couple years of blackout binge drinking and an album that buries, mourns and rages at everything he believed—Bazan has run out of answers.
"It's like losing a lifelong imaginary companion," the Seattle-based singer-songwriter says, then corrects himself. "That's not even it. I thought God and I had a pretty cool thing going. It's a companion that had the added feature of providing safety, and was going to be the one to right worldwide wrongs. I grew up believing that the poor and downtrodden had this cosmic advocate, and I no longer do. So that's not awesome."
Curse Your Branches, Bazan's first LP under his own name, is a record of that disappointment—and the sudden vulnerability of shedding a label and discovering that you are naked. As Pedro the Lion, Bazan was an acoustic defense attorney for God, using song cycles like Winners Never Quit and Control to prosecute pious hypocrites and advocate for prodigal sons. But now he has himself become a prodigal, with no intention of returning. "I swung my tassel to the left side of my cap," he sings in "Hard to Be," the new album's opener, "knowing after graduation there would be no going back." Curse Your Branches is a breakup album where the songwriter doesn't know if he's the dumper or predestined to be dumped—or if the person he loved even existed. It is a uniquely honest document of apostasy, with wild fluctuations between freedom and grief. Also, it's the loveliest piece of pop Bazan has ever recorded.
"I've been trying to not have such a rigid idea of what instruments are appropriate," Bazan says on a Halloween drive between Lawrence, Kan., and Omaha, Neb. (Curse Your Branches opens with synths, then expands past the traditional Pedro drone to include pedal steel, tambourine and group crooning.) "Whatever needs to be there is going to go on there. It's more fun not to limit myself."
The casting off of Christianity was far more painful. Bazan hit the bottle hard—"I wanted to drink until I physically couldn't drink anymore"—and wrote grooving kiss-offs to his former creator. "The toothpaste isn't going back inside the tube on this one," he thought. But even in the album's final song—where Bazan's father, a Presbyterian choir director, plays piano—he admits, "The crew has killed the captain, but they still can hear his voice." Bazan retains that longing for God. "I can't tell which it is: perceiving that something exists, or missing the conviction that something exists. I just don't know."
Admitting what he doesn't know has become Bazan's daily answer. "The discipline of reserving judgment, I don't think it comes as naturally for me, and I don't think it comes naturally for a lot of people. Just feel each conviction as strongly as it comes, write it down, and then move on to the next conviction. Or to lunch, or whatever." AARON MESH
SEE IT: David Bazan plays Mississippi Studios Friday, Nov. 6, with Say Hi. 9 pm. $12. 21+.