Music

Guess who’s still haunting David Bazan?

John J. Thompson

The author Flannery O’Connor said that while the culture of the American south was not actually Christ-centered, it was, in fact, “Christ haunted.” As a relatively recent transplant to the region I get her point. Even among people and institutions that have intentionally left the confines of faith, the shadow of the Gospel looms large. The same can be said for indie rocker David Bazan’s moody music. There may be no better example of Christ-haunted indie rock than the droning of this gloomy Christian expatriate.

Bazan began his musical career as the front man of Pedro the Lion. Although he never quite became the Christian rock star many in the press like to suggest, he did quickly win over the indie/alternative/Cornerstone Festival wing of the family of faith with his painfully honest, navel-gazing, post-emo songs. In fact, it could be argued that he made more waves with fans and press with the release of 2009’s Curse Your Branches - known as the album in which he broke up with Jesus - than he ever enjoyed as a supposed Christian artist. He continued the divorce proceedings with 2011’s Strange Negotiations and numerous transparentinterviews. Interestingly, Bazan seems to have ended up talking about God a lot more since he stopped believing in Him.

Now, five years after the breakup, Bazan is back with what may be his most accessible and inviting collection yet. Bazan Monthly - a project that was released at a rate of two songs per month, each batch available on seven-inch vinyl or download - is now complete. Analog synth sounds, well-arranged and mostly digital percussion and a somehow more welcoming vocal presentation all combine to create a David Bazan record that I have been able to listen to over a dozen times without becoming depressed or angry.

But make no mistake; it’s still about how much he isn’t a Christian. And he uses more Biblical references and Christian clichés than ever to get that point across.

Bazan's indie apostasy has never sounded better.

The set kicks off with “Impermanent Record.” A cool, ’80s sounding polyrhythmic keyboard arpeggio takes 10 seconds to establish the album’s timbre before Bazan sings, “I was trembling with gooseflesh the first time I prayed to speak in tongues. I saw it coming and I tried to run, but now I make it up as I go along.” So begins the most Christ-haunted album I have heard in a long time.

Bazan Monthly is so loaded with Christian imagery I wonder what sense those outside the faith can make of it. Unlike previous Bazan music though, either under his name or the numerous side projects he has undertaken, these songs seem more about his own mental and spiritual cul-de-sacs than about the evangelical fundamentalists he is still fleeing. As such, he has crafted some of his best work yet. “Deny Myself” ponders why a man would deny himself anything he desires if he is detached from the Law. “Disappearing Ink” and “With You” offer rare upbeat moments. All of the tracks use that same highly effective palette of retro keyboard sounds and electronic drums to animate the underlying compositions. Even when the imagery becomes oblique, it goes down very easy. The prevailing theme seems to be one man’s search for trustworthy ethics after he intentionally cuts loose the anchor that tethered him to a childhood faith.

Bazan is disarmingly honest and emotionally consistent throughout all of his songs. A string of sold-out concerts and a load of critical love demonstrate a growing audience for his unique fare. His indie apostasy has never sounded better. U2’s Bono once said, “Great music is written by people who are either running toward or away from God.” I wonder, though, when Bazan’s running will stop? In the light of his breakup, these songs feel like pictures of an old girlfriend that he just can’t bring himself to delete.

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, Faith