Wax Stories #3: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches

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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.

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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

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These lyrics completely wrecked me. Every paper for a theology class that required some sort of faith statement would from then on have a burned copy of Curse Your Branches attached to them. The questions on this album sparked conversations with friends who were feeling the same things and with artists I’d interview for the paper. It prompted me to debate with my professors in class and call out things I thought were bullshit. To my surprise, sometimes they’d even agree with me. I’d spend late nights, when I should’ve been studying, reading lengthy interviews with Bazan talking about his lose of faith and reading the Bible with his daughter. There was so much I wanted to talk about with him. I wanted to hear it from him. I did this for years, and still sort of do today. I’ve realized he’s not the only one asking these questions, but he has become a figurehead to me for all the doubters.

Through all this though, I never have forsake my beliefs totally. I’ve really tried to rationalize myself out of it, but I can’t. There’s still something there. I can’t explain it and that’s really frustrating. I know I sound really ignorant and I don’t really know what to say to people who call me out on it. But this album changed how I view Christianity. It’s not as black and white for me anymore. It’s not something I can shout out some facts I read on an online form and claim I won. I’m not so much interested in debating anymore. I’m more interested in respecting people for who they are and accepting the same respect in return. I’m not going to stop looking for answers and questioning the weird things that are bound to come up.


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When I finally got the chance to interview Bazan a few month ago, I didn’t prepare the questions I would have in 2009. Just as I began to realize I am more than whatever views I’m struggling with right now, so is he. The subject was touched upon a bit, but mainly to help tell his story. When I spin Curse Your Branches today, the questions he brings up are still unanswered. I don’t know if they ever will be, but I feel like I’m in a better place for it. Bazan and I haven’t had the same realization exactly. I don’t think two people ever will. I just hope we can learn to accept that without taking offense.

And why are some hellbent upon there being an answer
While some are quite content to answer I don’t know?

Next week: Grand Ole Party – Humanimals

Previous Wax Story: Elliott Smith – Either/Or

Follow me on Twitter: @DustyEffinHenry

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6 thoughts on “Wax Stories #3: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches

  1. This damn album *still* speaks so much to my journey and issues with faith, and it’s just as salient now as it was when I first discovered it years ago.

    “Bearing Witness” in particular is apt in describing how I got where I am. Unlike you and more like Bazan, I’m a humanist, an atheist on the theism scale. But where I connect with that song so much is something I think the three of us can share – the reason I am where I am is because I took a good honest look at myself, my beliefs, and what I knew, and decided I had to go with what I’ve got, what I can honestly attest to, and stop pretending I’m anything more than that.

    • I think this album will continue to be relevant for many years to come. It’s a great piece of work to come back to every now and then and be re-grounded. I feel humbled every time I spend time with it.

      I agree with you on “Bearing Witness.” It’s amazing how different people can come into this record, feel the same things, and come out with different perspectives. I think that’s a huge testament to Bazan’s writing and the weight of the questions. It may sound cheesy, but I feel like I’m a better person for having listened to this album. It got me out of myself and narrow viewpoints and reminded me that I don’t have it figured out and no one else does either.

      Thanks for reading man. I really appreciate it, and your thoughtful comment.

  2. It’s good to realise that you cannot recognise anything that isn’t part of your true self whether that is a colour or a shape, an idea or a phrase heard in a song. I’ve spent a lot of time observing Nature and understand that living applies to more than just us humans. An animal honours its own life and will live in pain rather than letting go of this unique experience. They follow no written creed but each animal has a code which it follows religiously. We who have so many options appear to live in misunderstanding but this is not so. We all know but we don’t all acknowledge what we know. If you need rules then write them for yourself. If you breathe more easily as a free spirit then trust your intuition. Can life be this simple? Yes it can. And if your life journey brings you back to where you started then honour the journey and smile, if it takes you to a different place honour that which stimulated your quest and smile. Thank you for writing this piece and stimulating my thoughts.

    • Wow. Thank you for that comment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts – it’s got me thinking even further now hah. You’re right – life can be that simple. I’d like to spend my time honoring life with other people rather than casting down their beliefs. Great insight. Thanks so much.

  3. Hey! (It’s Breann Ohman from KW).

    [the following is what I have found to be my own truth based on my observations and life experiences thus far. It is far from complete, and is certainly not meant to be imposed on anyone else.]

    I have been on a similar journey in terms of trying to find answers. It has been much more fulfilling for me to learn about various world views and see what their similarities are, rather than sticking to one perspective and arguing the differences. I believe this approach is more productive, as it is far less biased. I think that truth must lie in these commonalities.

    What I have found so far is that people seem to unknowingly seek discipline, which is offered by many religions and is part of what makes them appealing. For example, fame and fortune and a lack of personal discipline seems instantly gratifying, but it is a trend that depression accompanies those who seemingly have everything they want and live as they please. Routine and discipline offer a sense of purpose and control over one’s own actions. People who give and act selflessly often feel more overall satisfaction (this is based on what I have learned from courses in psychology, as well as personal observation).

    That being said, I disagree with the Christian notion that we are all fallen people and due to this sin, we’re set up for failure. (This is based on what I read in a book written by a psychologist called The Philosophical Baby, which studies early human behavior and demonstrates our innate inclination toward sharing, equality, fairness, etc.). I find that the Christian perspective on this makes people believe they are inherently bad and are completely of overcoming their flaws and weaknesses. It seems to be a depressing way to think, and could take away a person’s sense of confidence and self efficacy.

    In all cultures and people we can see love, compassion, kindness, sacrifice, and other good human qualities. I have met people of all sorts of religious backgrounds and atheists alike, and they have been some of the kindest, most open minded people I have know. I mention this because it contradicts what my upbringing in Christian schools (pre-K through 9th grade) has taught me. I was raised to pity the “heathens” and to believe that they are evil, desperately unhappy people. What I found while living in a liberal college town is that it seemed to be the Christians who were the most judgmental, biased (and unpleasant) people.

    Sorry for how lengthy this is.

    Last thought: there have always been things I disagreed with in regards to my religious upbringing, but because I was taught to fear the flames of hell, I was afraid to have any doubts. Once I chose to follow what I truly felt was the most open to compassion and love for others (isn’t that what religion is trying to achieve?), things became much easier for me emotionally and logically. A book I am about to read is called Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by the Dalai Lama.

    I recommend The Rumi Collection (edited by Kabir Helminski) as well. Stay hungry for knowledge and learn all you can! Be lead by compassion and you can’t go wrong.

    🙂

    “The same Light shines through every religious window.” – Forrest Church, author of The Cathedral of the World: a Universalist Theology

  4. Pingback: Wax Stories #4: Grand Ole Party – Humanimals | My Effin Life

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