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David Bazan’s Christmas Album Explores the Darker Side of the Holidays

David Bazan’s new Christmas album, Dark Sacred Nights, ends with a scene of gentle heartbreak.
The song’s called “Wish My Kids Were Here,” and it’s a black-humor bummer of a song. As Bazan mournfully strums his guitar and sings with that oversized, smoldering baritone of his drenched in reverb, a phone rings, interrupting the low-fidelity ambience. It’s his daughter — his real-life daughter, not the fictional one from the song. “Oh, baby girl,” he says, his voice cracking. “Merry Christmas.”

Childhood is at the heart of Dark Sacred Nights, which collects a number of traditional Christmas carols Bazan has released as singles over the last decade and covers of Christmas songs by Low and John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

With great care, he unpacks Christmastime in all its complexity. There’s deep sadness. But there’s also a sense of wonder he felt as a child at Christmas, long before he started his indie rock band Pedro the Lion, which explored faith and politics, and before he went solo with Curse Your Branches, an album about leaving behind his Christian faith. Like all of Bazan’s recordings, it’s complicated, and it finds him coming to terms with the most radical elements of Christianity, the acts of goodwill, and love that Christ said required becoming like “little children.”

“I’m still in the stage where I don’t really know what to make of it,” Bazan says of the quiet, sparse album. “You could put it on a mix with Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown stuff maybe, or some really somber boys’ choir shit from the U.K. [But as far as Christmas] music you’d hear in the mall or at your friend’s house at a Christmas party, this doesn’t really work in those contexts.”

Instead, it soundtracks the private, contemplative moments that the season brings. Bazan inhabits songs like “Away In a Manger,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with a soft-hued grace.

“All of the worst contradictions between the best traditions and the current practice of Christianity are on full display during the Christmas season,” Bazan says of the songs’ calls for peace and kindness. “Christmas is when we give lip service to the most radical aspects of Christianity. … Christmas music is a way to reflect on Christianity in what feels to me like a very healthy way.”

But the record has sharp edges, too. On “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” he questions his belief, and with “Silent Night,” he inserts new, brutal words about those who have “hunted and tortured in this baby’s name.” It’s one of the oldest recordings on the album. While Bazan says his new lyrics read juvenile to him now, there’s an element of juvenility inherent in optimism and idealism, and he’s unwilling to shy from that.

“I believe deeply in vulnerability and the public expression of that,” Bazan says.

Following the election of Donald Trump — with “the menace of fascism” becoming “all too real,” Bazan says — calls for “coming together” have echoed across Twitter and Facebook. These songs offer a path toward empathy, but not in a way that excuses hateful, racist, xenophobic, and sexist voters.

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“Fuck all of those people — and that’s what Christmas music really says, in the sweetest possible way,” Bazan says.

The sweetness cannot be overstated. This is a protest record, but it’s fueled by the a gentle humanism that runs through Bazan’s discography.

“[It says] ‘Let’s gather around all these things we all agree on,’ so that maybe on December 26, you don’t forget how to be a fucking Christian,” Bazan says. “I want to stand up as someone who says ‘I’m never growing out of this feeling that we can be better, we can do better for each other.’”

David Bazan is scheduled to perform Sunday, December 4, at Valley Bar.

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