When songwriter David Bazan impeached Pedro, his former band, and began performing under his own name, it wasn’t clear just how much of himself he was committing to offer listeners in so doing. The bracing parables of infidelity and self-righteousness and murder and religiosity and capitalism that he’d recorded under the Pedro The Lion moniker always vibrated with observations about human nature that seemed almost impolite to voice aloud.
Working in the realm of fiction furnished a truth-telling hall pass. The sensationalism of the plot twists – on Winners Never Quit a squeaky-clean politician murders his wife after she threatens to expose him, on Control a spurned wife stabs her philandering husband – reassured us with the implicit disclaimer that any connection to real persons or events was entirely coincidental. And concept albums, as we all know, are contrived by definition (right?). The wrapper of fiction offered plausible deniability, that we weren’t really that awful to each other. Bazan could hacksaw all the way to the bone and exhibit the black-rot marrow because it was somebody else’s bone, and the bone was all just a metaphor anyway. For all we know, Bazan might even be autopsying a straw man. But if his concept albums could be safely relegated to fiction, what were we to make of songs like “I Do” off 2004’s Achilles Heel?
“And when his tiny head emerged from hair and folds of skin / I thought to myself if he only knew he would climb right back in... / Now that my blushing bride has done what she was born to do / It's time to bury dreams and raise a son to live vicariously through... / The sperm swims for the egg / The finger for the ring / If i could take one back / I know what it would be”
How's that for confessional candor? Even if we could be sure this narrator was simply an invented character, couldn’t it still be a sock puppet used by Bazan to vent his own ambivalence about parenthood? The playfulness of the cliche “blushing bride”. The brazenness of a father openly acknowledging his desire to live vicariously through his son. Maybe it’s all just black comedy, even if that final unresolved hypothetical left hanging in the air makes our chest tighten. Regretting a child or regretting a marriage. Which admission leaves the less scorching impression?
Consider the early Pedro song “Criticism As Inspiration” in which Bazan visits this same theme of how we commodify others to give our lives meaning, how we use them to plug up our own emptiness. Instead of the open legs of a labouring mother, this time it’s the posture of a receptive lover.
“Then there's your girlfriend / She opens her legs and gives your life meaning / Is that what you love her for? / It makes me feel so good to always tell you when you're wrong / The big man that I am to always have to put you down / It makes me look so good to always put you in your place / I can write it in a song but never say it to your face”
There it is again, the wallpaper-stripping sarcasm. Bazan seems to be checking his own motives for drawing attention to the messiness of other’s lives. What better way to deflect attention than to indulge in a critique of one’s neighbour. But then came Curse Your Branches, the first album to feature a photograph of David Bazan (however blurry), obscured somewhat by the giant, bright yellow text “BAZAN” in all-caps. It felt like a proper ‘coming out’ moment, the singer megaphoning his disillusionment with Christian fundamentalism, his slow dissolve into the booze he enjoyed a bit too much for his own good, his empathy with sinners, drunks, losers and fuck-ups the world over. Bazan seemed to be engaged in controlled burning as a means of clearing away the weeds and tangle and occasionally whole trees, giving light a chance to hit the forest floor. Self-immolation as the path to being born again, or at least giving new life some room to grow.
Bazan’s solo albums do have this weird obsession with trees, come to think of it. The cover art of 2006’s Fewer Moving Parts featured an illustration of Bazan cradling an axe against shoulder, standing in front of a grove of tree stumps. Clear-cutting. On the track “Backwoods Nation” he sang about America’s most regressive, hateful fringe existing in this metaphorical forest, insulated from multiculturalism and what some might deem progressive social values. Then on Curse Your Branches the tree imagery returns, wholly unavoidable given the fact that Bazan’s axe had finally bitten into the biblical tree of life itself. Leaves fall from branches, unable to determine where they land, or if they even have to fall at all.
By the time you get to Bazan’s last couple solo albums, Blanco (2016) and now Care, his axe has chopped to kindling any guitars hanging about the studio, making way for moody synths and programmed drum beats. The coarse grain of Bazan’s baritone finds its perfect complement in the album’s toasty-warm synth textures, shimmering keys and throbbing bass frequencies. Though the electronic components take on a grungy patina at times, the overall impression is one of cleanliness, clarity and metronomical order. Counter-intuitively, the more Bazan seems to slide into various forms of intoxication (“I recreate in the usual way, shut some breakers off but not the whole box, next day I wake till the fog finally abates, again at risk of being bored by clear thought”), the more sober his instrumental and compositional instincts become.
If Curse Your Branches found Bazan searching arms extended through the cloud of steam left over from the evaporated reservoir of his own baptismal font, Care seems to investigate the dissolution of a more terrestrial bond – marriage. He sings of infidelity (“Stop romanticising cheating, we are cowards everyone, all of us need major healing, come and get yours in the sun”), but this isn’t the hyper-dramatic sort from the protagonist of Pedro the Lion’s Control. The record’s title track follows a platonic relationship between a man and woman that pulses with not-so-naive intensity. “Later on we went out walking without ruining our lives," Bazan sings, "we know the difference between talking and going just outside the lines. It’s not like we’re immune to it.”
“Make Music” captures the struggle to hold together the planks of a marriage’s splintering hull, even as salty ocean gushes through the breach:
“Didn’t the disappointment press in the middle of your chest / Disbelief turned to bargaining, heartbreak turned to stress / Though the words had not been said yet, it was all you were gonna to get / You don’t know what will happen now and it’s caving in your head... / Didn’t I always interrupt that the sun was coming up / You believed it for a little while but you might have given up / I considered getting sober, I don’t want to be left over / But I would need a little more of you to try and fill the void...
"Didn’t we always vote for love when our friends were breaking up / Then they’d go and see a counsellor to find it’s not enough / Didn’t we hope it wouldn’t come for us when adulthood called our bluff / And we tried to turn the volume down and muddle through the hush… / Didn’t we make music? / Didn’t we always risk our hearts to do this?”
I’ve been through stretches in my own marriage where the silences punctuating the hardest conversations felt bottomless, spike-lined. And even those pits, without any safety net below to catch a falling body, felt safer than any web of words that might be stretched across the gap. That is a terrible despair, an almost impossible vulnerability. Maybe it’s something that every married person experiences at one time or another, if only for a season, but the marital scars Bazan spends several songs on Care describing certainly feel like a eulogy. In “Lazerbeams” he sings in unmissable past-tense,
“I woke up thinking I should stay / Awake whatever's coming next / Tears in someone's office / Unpacking our regrets / Now it's time to repaint / But it could be time to sell / All the plans we made together / And all there is, mis-remembered wealth / And though we couldn't see the future / Or comprehend the past / We knew that it would last / When we were lazerbeams”
Though it would be presumptuous to believe we have a perfect read on Bazan’s life simply from listening to Care, it feels like (if only in parable) he's written a second divorce record. And once again he accomplishes the feat with miraculous sensitivity and compassion. Maybe that’s what Bazan’s songwriting is all about – tracing a finger along the bruises, the scarred wrists, not out of disbelief but simply to acknowledge that we all carry them beneath our sleeves. He caresses these bruises. In short, he treats them with care.