David Bazan was a pretty cool Christian in 2002.
His band, Pedro the Lion (of which Bazan was the sole consistent member) had a string of impressive releases to its name, including 1998's It's Hard to Find a Friend and 2000's Winners Never Quit, plus a couple of singles and EPs. The albums were greeted with enthusiasm by the alternative music press, praising the band's taut "slowcore" indie rock style. Bazan was lauded as a gifted lyricist, stringing together Biblical morality plays, remarkable human drama, Doubting Thomas confessionals, and haunting devotionals. You didn't have to be a Christian rock fan to like Pedro the Lion; the band recorded for a secular label (Jade Tree) and played with secular bands.
But for Christian fans, Bazan was a rare kind of songwriter. He was honest, and he created music that didn't pander. It was resolute, but it wasn't rigid.
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The David Bazan Band is scheduled to perform Wednesday, December 5, at the Rhythm Room.
But with his 2002 record, Control, Bazan's music got even harder to classify as "Christian rock," if it had ever been before. It wasn't that Bazan's music had previously been "clean" by morality-police standards (his songs included references to both sex and drugs), but Control was something else. It was louder, with Pinkerton-as-played-by Fugazi guitars and booming drums. There were swear words and, cardinally, the record was a scathing indictment of the religious right in the Bush era. Which wasn't exactly Bazan's plan.
"It's funny," Bazan says from the road, driving the van that's shuttling his ensemble, The David Bazan Band (Bazan dropped the Pedro the Lion moniker in 2006 and since has released two full-length solo records), through the major cities of America, playing the entirety of Control in commemoration of its 10th anniversary.
"American evangelical Christianity was so tied in with American right-wing politics," Bazan says. "I think that's were the link is. I don't ever make that connection on the record directly, but I think it's sort of implied because of how closely linked the two spheres of American culture were at the time. It became a comment on 'American evangelical Christianity' without me ever really saying anything about it."
Building on the concept record format of Winners Never Quit, the album tells the story of a modern American couple, married with "Options" at the start of the record ("I could never divorce you / Without a good reason") but soon entangled in a web of consumerism ("Penetration," "Magazine"), jealousy ("Second Best"), and, finally, murder ("Priests and Paramedics").
The record closed with a song that Christian fans found most controversial, "Rejoice." "Wouldn't it be so wonderful if everything were meaningless," Bazan sings over shimmering washes of reverb-drenched guitar. "But everything is so meaningful / And most everything turns to shit / Rejoice."
"There's two ways you can take it," Bazan says. "One is that the 'rejoice' is sarcastic, and one where 'rejoice' is genuine. No matter which way you take it, both of them are deeply rooted in the biblical tradition. One of the things that happens with evangelical Christianity is that there are just huge swaths of the Bible that Christians completely ignore, [like] how [on] every fucking page, there's a admonition to take care of the poor. I think that was just highlighting a pretty unpopular sentiment that is present all throughout the Bible, but especially Ecclesiastes."
The Book of Ecclesiastes, with its refrain of "Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!" is not the most popular sentiment embraced by modern American Christianity, but like that book, Bazan's "Rejoice" is not a justification of nihilism, but an acknowledgment of an existential melancholy crucial to the Christian narrative, that a broken world can be redeemed only by a faultless savior.
"I certainly wrote it from a perspective of believing in a fallen world at that time," Bazan says. "You know, my friend Jason Martin [of Christian rock band Starflyer 59] told me, 'That's the most Christian song I've ever heard anybody write.' And I thought, 'Oh, that's weird. I didn't think of it like that,' but yeah, I just did. If someone is 'reformed' at all, that communicates the reformed perspective pretty directly."
The record took many fans aback, and they weren't shy about sharing their concerns with Bazan.
"It's funny, because I don't think about [potential fan reactions] until after," Bazan says. "I'll say things and realize their ramifications later. That was definitely how it was with Control. I was like, sure, there's some of this stuff, and I'm saying swears, and I say 'cum,' but I got over it, and I assumed that everybody else was magically over it, too. A lot of fans had grievances. That first round of Control touring, I had a lot of people come up and talk with me. Literally, every night, kind of pointing a finger in my chest and telling me what I was doing was wrong. 'Are you still a Christian?' and all this stuff. That was a little surprising. It probably shouldn't have been, but it was."
Whether fans were simply stumped or trying to wrap their heads around the lyrics of someone they had elected to speak for them, it wore Bazan down.
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"It was just a sense of, I'm trying to communicate something that seemed reasonable, and if they didn't want to listen or understand," he says. "I definitely said, 'We're just going to have to agree to disagree' a lot on the trip. Some people accepted that, and some people just said, 'No, I won't agree; that's so wrong,' and then they'd turn around and leave. If there was somebody I had a context for, that I liked and respected, that would be one thing. But when it's just rude, presumptuous, totally dogmatic strangers [demanding answers], I can't be worried about that shit."
Further records from Bazan would only illustrate the gap between his Christian fan base and the songwriter. Achilles' Heel (2004), Pedro the Lion's finest hour, diverged from the concept-record format, instead painting inspired, Warren Zevon-esque vignettes about cheating lovers ("Arizona") and debauched nights on the town ("Keep Swinging"). It also took things even further than Control in the content department, inserting an F-bomb into the Holy Spirit's speech to a well-meaning believer ("Foregone Conclusions"). When Bazan shut Pedro the Lion down altogether ("I think it's a dumb band name," he says. "If I can help it, I won't ever use that name again") he released Curse Your Branches, which critic Jessica Hopper described beautifully and accurately as a "breakup record — except he's dumping God, Jesus, and the evangelical life" in her feature, "The Passion of David Bazan," for the Chicago Reader.
Bazan says he's not fond of looking backward, and that the decision to tour in commemoration of Control was an awkward one. But the Pedro the Lion catalog has recently been remastered and reissued, and touring seemed the most effective way to communicate that "Bazan" and "Pedro the Lion" are really the same "brand."
"It was a tough decision when it came up," Bazan says. "It just kind of smacked off all that cashing-in nostalgia stuff. Honestly, without the re-releases, I would never commemorate the 10th anniversary by playing it from end to end. 'David Bazan Band Plays Pedro the Lion's Control' is pretty wordy, but that seemed like it would be an effective way to do it, and that I wasn't going to feel too negative about doing it. As it turns out, I feel pretty good."