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

Won’t Let Go

Photo by Dorothy Hyunh (http://www.dorothyhuynh.com/)

This post was written on August 14, around midnight, and published August 16.

I’ve avoided writing a blog about marriage or “life as an engaged person” post for a while. Most of the reason lies behind thinking that a lot of the posts I read like this are cheesy and (perhaps ashamedly) Kristin and I have both laughed at how strange some of them are (just kidding, no shame – they’re hilarious). So maybe I’ll end up in that “strangely comical lubby dubby blogger” realm if just for this post.

Right now I’m sitting alone in the apartment Kristin and I will share as our first home as a family. The living room is completely empty. I have two plates, two glasses, a bowl, and one of each type of silverware. My belongings, mostly clothes and records, are all collected in the bedroom. I haven’t really organized anything; I’m waiting until Kristin moves in so we can set things up together and make it our place.

It’s a surreal feeling, living like this. It’s peaceful and yet jarring. Everything feels like the calm before a storm, but instead of a storm it’s a whole new life waiting on the other side. When I can’t quite comprehend what I’m feeling and struggle to keep my thoughts straight I typically turn to music that I think captures it better than I think I’m able to.

I first heard “Won’t Let Go” when David Bazan played a snippet of it at The Triple Door during “The Song Show,” a series where CityArts interviews artists on stage between songs. Bazan’s been urged for a while now to write a conventional love song that doesn’t involve some sort of twisted scenario (not a lot of people bought his reasoning that “Please Baby Please” was a love song, a song where the narrator drunkenly pleads with his wife for a drink and later their daughter dies in a car accident – basically our generations “I Only Have Eyes For You”). Hearing just that little bit two years ago, I knew it was breathtaking. I thought the same thing when it was finally released on his album last year. But I don’t think I really “got it” until tonight.

As I work on the favors for our wedding, I have this song on repeat. The distant drums, the ethereal guitar twang, and Bazan’s aged soft growl are constantly buzzing in my ears. I can’t stop listening; I feel comforted. Basically in the song Bazan is calling his wife before getting on a plane, explaining that when she gets this message he’ll be on a plane thinking about her and his responsibilities to her – and that he won’t let go of her.

The premises sounds more like a Billy Joel, Peter Frampton, or, heck, even a Bruno Mars song – some generic safe musician. But it’s all about the execution of the story and who is telling it. The track bookends an album that starts with a chorus of “You’re a goddamn fool and I love you” and later details how we as people have lost our humanity. Not exactly “Baby I Love Your Way” now is it? Bazan’s had a rough road with faith that he’s shared publicly through his music and has also publicly mentioned its strain on his relationship with his family in interviews. To Bazan, this isn’t throw away napkin poetry but a thoughtful declaration.

“Who or what controls the fates of men I cannot say, but I keep arriving safely home to you. I humbly acknowledge that I won’t always get my way, but darling death would have to pry my fingers loose.”

What does it mean to love someone that you would literally fight off death, not for your own sake, but to not leave them alone? Darwin told us the animal kingdom is all about survival of the fittest, animals fighting for dominance and doing whatever it takes to get it. Bazan tells us his wife is worth more than pure alpha supremacy. What a novel concept, aye? This probably seems obvious and stupid but I think he touches at something even deeper – love is going against your human nature to give up everything for someone else. That’s beautiful.

It’s not just about avoiding death, it’s about allowing nothing to keep you from the one you love whether it is metaphysical or otherwise.  That’s an easy statement to make but a harder one to fully grasp – let alone follow through with.

In the over three years Kristin and I have been together, I’ve become closer to her than anyone in my life. In those years I’ve learned really for the first time what it means to sacrifice for someone you love. Not just little sacrifices, but knowing your capacity to do whatever you can to make sure they are safe and content. I can probably think of small things I’ve done for friends and family throughout my life that may constitute as “sacrifices,” but they’re not quite the same. Getting to this point has been the hardest thing I think I’ve done. There has been that pain in my stomach when I’ve felt like I cannot do enough only to gain the strength to move forward. I mean a physical hurt. There’s an actual ache when you want to raise someone up but you’re not sure how. And when you figure it out, it’s so much joy – not joy for your benefit but joy for the other person.

Of course, there is much more than just these aspects that go into love, but right now these are the specific ones on my mind. I’d need a novel to explore that, not a blog post.

I love Kristin more than I did the first time I told her I loved her. In twenty years I’m sure I’ll look back and say that I love her more than I did when I said it on my wedding day. Having a responsibility like this to someone else is challenging but the reward is tenfold. I cannot and will not let go of her, I could never afford to do that. Bazan and I could tag team beating the of shit out death because it’d take far more than that for me to stop trying – it’s impossible.

“I will not let go. I will not let go. I will not let go of you.”