Sophomore year of college seems to be the “existential crisis” year for most people I know. Freshman year is all about meeting new people, having new experiences, and having the misplaced sense of independence (“I’m an adult now. I don’t live at home. I live in a dorm that my parents pay for and use a meal plan that my parents also pay for”). After the hype of college life dies down, it’s time to process all these new ideas and worldviews that have been stewing over the past year. If anything, I found this to be true for me.
I get a bit nervous writing about faith and thoughts on religion on my blog; I fear what impression it may give people and put everything into some weird, pigeonholed context. However, I feel this album is a good outlet to talk about it. If anything Curse Your Branches has helped me move on from closed mindedness and in to something else that I’m still trying to figure out.
At the end of freshman year, David Bazan – still newly solo after the break-up of Pedro The Lion – played on my campus in association with our campus radio station KSPU. I’d been listening to Bazan and Pedro The Lion since high school per suggestion of my friend Nate. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard Bazan play, but I was intrigued at the idea of him playing on a Christian college campus. Pedro the Lion was often mislabeled as a Christian band, but at this point it was becoming prevalent that Bazan was no longer a believer. I remember feeling secretly guilty singing along to “Cold Beer & Cigarettes” from his solo EP Fewer Moving Parts in high school, which featured the Bazan husky voice belting “what a cruel God we got” and references to vaginas and sexual deviancy. I was surprised Seattle Pacific University would even allow something like that presented under their banner.
Bazan stood on the stage with only a guitar and a light projection of broken glass behind him. He opened with a song that at the time was titled “Graduation Day.” Opening with a new song is a bit unusual, but I studied the lyrics as he sang. Primarily it questioned the biblical creation narrative, but it was the last verse that felt painfully relevant to the room:
So I swung my tassel
To the left side of my cap
Knowing after graduation
There would be no going back
And no congratulations
From my faithful family
Some of whom are already fasting
To intercede for me
It felt a bit heavy handed to me in the moment, but it was the first time listening to Bazan that I got the impression he had a statement he wanted people to know. If that were true, he definitely got my hooked.
That summer, in 2009, I went to Alaska with my buddies Zach and John to work at a helicopter tour company. After spending a year in the dorms feigning self-sufficiency, I got what it really meant to grind out 50 hour work-weeks and have most of your paycheck go to rent and bills. Being away from most people I know gave me time to think and absorb challenges I had to my worldview in the last year, among other things (future Wax Stories referencing Alaska are sure to come). At night when I would read on the couch, I’d put Pedro the Lion’s discography on shuffle through my laptop speakers. I’m pretty sure Zach and John were pretty sick of hearing it all the time, but it gave me a chance to really listen to what Bazan was saying on those Pedro the Lion albums and try and use them to decipher my experience hearing him at SPU.
Bazan released an acoustic version of “Please Baby Please” earlier that year that I listened to obsessively. But when I found “Hard to Be” (formerly titled “Graduation Day”) streaming on Last.FM when I got back from Alaska, I knew this album was going to take things further than he had with Pedro the Lion. I knew it was something I needed to hear.
And now it’s hard to be
Hard to be
Hard to be a decent human being
Curse Your Branches is the first album I can recall ever pre-ordering. I had it shipped to my new dorm, which I was living in alone for a few weeks before school started. My stereo was damaged during move-in, so it would be a while before I could actually listen to the vinyl, but I immediately pulled out the download code from the packaging and listened through my laptop.
I’d been going to Christian schools since I was 13. That doesn’t make me a theologian by any means, but gave me a decidedly evangelical perspective on things. I don’t want to completely disown my education – I feel like I did learn a lot of valuable philosophies and concepts, but I was really only seeing one side of a controversial and often upsetting story. Of course I had questions and issues with things that came up in the Bible, but everyone I was surrounded by was so sure that all of it was true and said they could cite exact scientific and moral reasons why. Everything could be explained through tactful apologetics. So any doubts I had, I repressed. Not specifically because anyone told me not to question, but because I personally felt it was inappropriate. So when “Hard to Be” opens Curse Your Branches, Bazan is bringing out all these questions I’d been denying myself all these years. It was heartbreaking, but at the same time intoxicating. It made me sad for him while feeling relief that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.
The album then goes into a borderline parody of the Parable of the Weeds from the Book of Matthew on “Bless This Mess”, then a parable of Bazan’s own with “Please Baby Please,” and then to the title track “Curse Your Branches.” This is the one of all the tracks that will stick with me the most.
Red and orange, or red and yellow
In which of these do you believe?
If you’re not sure right now,
Please take a moment
I need your signature before you leave
How are we supposed to be so sure on what is the right religion or mode of thought when we have so little to go off and so little (relative) time to decide?
All falling leaves should curse their branches
For not letting them decide where they should fall
And not letting them refuse to fall at all
While some are quite content to answer I don’t know?