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Christianity and rock 'n' roll have never been comfortable bedfellows. Though attempts to reconcile the two have been made repeatedly over the years, no act has successfully bridged the gap between Christian and secular music. There's a long list of those that have tried, but, whether it's Stryper or Jars of Clay or MxPx, their audiences have remained distinctly separate from the general listening public.
In the ever-elitist world of indie rock, this chasm between rockfodder and godstuff is even wider. There are examples of Christian artists who have gained the respect of the independent masses -- Sunny Day Real Estate front man Jeremy Enigk comes to mind -- but the two elements nonetheless seem permanently at odds. Stereotypically, the indie-rock audience is disenfranchised suburbanite youth who are rejecting the values of the generations that have come before, going on the theory that by evaluating and reinventing their own values they loosen the reins of their suspiciously preprogrammed belief systems. In almost all cases, this reinvention leaves behind orthodox concepts of Christianity and spirituality.
Meet 24-year-old David Bazan. Bazan is a born again Christian, as well as the only permanent member of the band Pedro the Lion. Pedro's latest album, the gently infectious Winners Never Quit, is just out on the ultra-hip Jade Tree record label, home to underground luminaries like the Promise Ring, Jets to Brazil and Joan of Arc. Bazan's religion happens to be an intrinsic part of his music, and by God, the heathen kids are into it.
Since the mid-'90s Pedro the Lion has been creating soft, intense, mostly acoustic music that is at times troubling, inspiring, and provocative, often because of the religious tint of Bazan's subject matter. Pedro's first full-length, 1998's It's Hard to Find a Friend, was rife with songs centered around faith, guilt and devotion, either in relationships with people or with God. Favorites among Christian-rock fans as well as with indie snots, Bazan's songs broach the subject of Jesus in a distinctly unorthodox manner, not through preaching or gospelizing, but by analyzing and questioning.
"My goal in treating whatever subject matter I'm writing about is to not make a definitive statement about it, but rather to poke and prod it and raise questions about it, so that people can interact with the stuff no matter where they're coming from," Bazan explains. He's well aware of the potential ire that mixing God with rock 'n' roll can inspire, but feels no compulsion to separate the two strictly for the sake of convention. "Art and rock 'n' roll are at their best when people are just allowed to express themselves in whatever way they feel necessary to do. I think that threatens some people maybe, but when people have informed opinions about my music that are negative, I really invite those."
Bazan doesn't intend to evangelize with his music; the religious aspects are not part of an agenda. "I don't choose this subject matter in the way that it's arbitrary; it's a pretty integral part of my life and the journey or whatever that I feel like I'm on," he says. Nor are the sentiments that Bazan expresses with regards to his religion what you would expect; there are far more questions than answers in his songs. "I've been sort of learning new and different things about the religion I've grown up in. On [Winners Never Quit], there's definitely some things that kind of undermine the original ideas I grew up with. That's just an important part of me expressing what I'm discovering currently."
Winners Never Quit will certainly never be filed in the gospel section of the record store. Less a record than an Aesop's fable with myriad paradoxes to contemplate, the album is a chronological story of a family's dysfunction. The lyric sheet is prefaced by the line "a good person is someone who hasn't been caught" -- not exactly the sort of thing you'd read in an Amy Grant v-card. The story noir examines the lives of two brothers, one a righteous-since-birth right-wing politician and the other a shamed criminal living in his brother's shadow.
It begins with a summation of the brothers' childhood narrated by the "good" brother on "Slow and Steady Wins the Race." The protagonist contrasts his faith and seemingly guaranteed salvation with his brother's lack of such, and as the album progresses, the contrasts grow. The songs follow one brother as he enters politics and wins elections through the twin virtues of lying and palm greasing; the other as he encounters the long arm of the law and struggles to protect his family name. The plot line spirals into adultery, murder and suicide as it progresses, leaving the listener with many perspectives but no concrete answers. "I'm leaving it open for discussion," says Bazan.
Though it's unquestionably a morality tale, wherethe morality lies is a gray area to say the least. The politico who sings about getting to heaven and being greeted by the angels eventually murders his wife, and in the subsequent song kills himself with the belief that he's off to heaven. On "Bad Things to Such Good People," his "bad" sibling stands in prison shoes at his brother's funeral, musing over the shame his parents feel -- "their big success is now their biggest failure/their golden child has been dethroned."