Last night I drove to Chapel Hill to see David Bazan play some songs. I’ve been a big fan of his for years and when the chance comes to see him in a city near me, I try to take it.
When he first started making music as Pedro the Lion, his music was simple and full of songs about Jesus and his faith. I loved that kind of thing then (and I still do sometimes), and some of his songs like “The Bells” and “Secret of the Easy Yoke” are at the top of my list of my favorite Christian songs. His version of “Be Thou My Vision” is one of my favorite songs of all time, and for me his early EPs and albums are kind of a shorthand for what my early college years were like.
His last three albums as Pedro the Lion were different things entirely. Moving away from the Jesus-centric stuff, he made two concept albums back-to-back. With no songs that were explicitly about his faith, it was apparent in interviews he’d begun to move away from that. These two concept albums, and the normal album that came after them, were brilliant and full of a fuller rock sound than had been on his previous records. With this music, especially the concept albums, Christian kids who liked the faith obvious in his old stuff could write his change off as “he’s writing as a character, not what he really thinks.” During this time he also made a record as Headphones that was more of a keyboard-driven sound; this one also didn’t contain specifically spiritual songs, but was still really good (in fact, one of the songs from that album is another of my all-time favorites).
He then decided to hang up the Pedro the Lion moniker and make music under his own name. I saw him at one show a few years ago where he was trying out new music that would be on his first “David Bazan” EP, and the songs had become more about politics, society, and what was going on in the world. Still just as brilliant as his Pedro the Lion stuff, but about different topics. Not so much spiritual as just very creative and affecting. His first EP had five songs done both as full band songs and acoustic versions, for a total of ten, and was a more personal record than anything he’d done to this point. It was apparent that whenever he came out with a full CD, it was going to be an intensely personal one.
That full CD came out about a month ago and from the first time listening it was obvious something was different. The music had gotten more mature and fuller, he was playing with a whole band again, and you could tell he believed very much in this record. The themes have been brought back to the spiritual/faith side, but at first glance on almost the total opposite side of his early stuff. Make no mistake, this is a record about doubt and disbelief. Not disbelief in God necessarily, because a couple of the songs show him as still being aware of God’s voice, but more disbelief in the kind of God he’d grown up with. The kind of shallow God a lot of Christians try to portray. This record is one big “What the fuck, God? Seriously?” It is the extremely personal record it looked like he would make, and deals with his previous drinking problems, his wife and daughter, and his relationship with his faith. It is the most individually personal record I’ve ever heard.
But the thing is, it’s just as spiritual as his early Pedro the Lion stuff. While I may not be in a consistent state of doubt, there are times when I am in exactly the same place as he is on this album. There are times when I doubt and times when I am in a kind of shrugging disbelief at God when all I can do is turn my palms up and say “Is this seriously how it is? Are you really like this?” And I think that kind of doubt is important and necessary to the kind of life I am called by my faith to live. This new album only strengthened my feeling that he has been and is still my absolute favorite songwriter (well, maybe tied with Aaron Weiss from mewithoutYou, but…).
After the show I thanked him for making such an honest record and not being afraid of what people might have to say about it (some of the more evangelical Christians who have been his fans since the beginning seem to be pretty split on this record). He said “Well, what’re you gonna do, you know? There were already people who were saying things before this.”
Honesty. That’s the best thing about this record and about seeing him play live. His voice is as clear and emotional live as it is on the albums, and he and his band aren’t up there to be rock stars. They’re up there to play songs and connect with the audience. At every show, he takes questions in between songs and will answer them honestly no matter what they are; I think this builds a personal connection between him and his fans that not many artists have, and he’s always willing to hang around afterward and talk to people. I don’t know him personally, but from what I’ve heard on his records, what I’ve read in interviews, what I’ve heard him say, and what we’ve said to each other the couple times we’ve talked at shows, he’s one of the most honest and genuine people you’ll ever meet.
That’s so important these days, both in music and in spirituality.
(This is an article about his new album, well worth reading: http://burnsidewriters.com/2009/09/16/bless-this-mess/