By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
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By Julie Seabaugh
Still, things aren't quite so cut-and-dry for Bazan. He refers to himself as agnostic and confesses to being "double-, triple-, quadruple-minded" when it comes to the existence of God. Another verse of "In Stitches" suggests he's still haunted by remnants of the faith he's left behind: "I might as well admit it/Like I even have a choice/The crew have killed the captain/But they still can hear his voice/A shadow on the water/A whisper in the wind."
And for all of the vitriol in "When We Fell," Bazan says, "When I wrote that song, I had the real sense that there was one version of God, and it was the version of God that evangelical Christianity described. And I was speaking to that God and voicing dissatisfaction with that character. And in the wake of that, it was like, 'That's just what they say he is, and I'm speaking to that God.' So occasionally, if I'm feeling close to a notion that there is a God and he's not like that, when I sing that song I feel like I'm defending God. There's a sense in which I feel like I'm tearing down one version of God and maybe going to bat for the God that might actually exist."
It's important to note that Curse Your Branches is not an episode of Lost — you don't necessarily need to know the religious back story to find a way in. It's also easy to fall in love with on an aesthetic level. That's part of what drew so many secular music fans to Pedro the Lion: Aside from Bazan's willingness to question his faith in Pedro lyrics rather than promote strict dogma (though in the end, he always insisted he believed), it was his commitment to artfully constructed, melodically rich music that distinguished the band from a "Christian-rock" scene that overwhelmingly prized the message over a good tune.
On Branches, Bazan stretches out vocally like never before. His expressive, wide-ranging voice — simultaneously sweet and weighty as always — nails an even wider spectrum of emotions: anger, grief, shame, resolve, relief. And sonic pleasures both grand and subtle, uplifting and shattering, pour out from start to finish. The way a lonely, yearning piano melody intertwines with synthesizer and drums to form the lush, regal foundation of "Hard To Be." The breezy guitar twang of "Bearing Witness," which plays off the texture and swing of Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You." The molasses, hymnlike convergence of organ, pedal steel and percussion that deftly underscores and subverts the lyrical concerns of "In Stitches."
Part of being a "good man," Bazan explains, is also striving to be the best artist and the best performer he can possibly be. Proud of his growth as a singer and a songwriter, he's itching to get back into the clubs with a band after more than a year of performing intimate, solo "living room shows" — online-organized gigs in people's houses where he's played his songs for a few dozen fans and answered all of their questions, typically deep and difficult ones, typically about his faith or lack thereof. Clearly, Bazan the person and Bazan the artist will always be associated with matters of Christianity, no matter what direction he pushes his career from here. But he seems OK with that and at peace with the direction he's pushed his life.
"When I was a kid we moved around a bunch, and the first time we did, my whole world came apart in my mind. I just felt like, you know, 'What happened to all my friends?!' and so on," he says. "But after doing it three years in a row, it was like, 'This isn't so bad — I'm still here, and things are OK.' So it's the same kinda thing.
"You lose your sense of bearings in regard to all of these issues for a bit, and you feel like everything should be broken, but it's not. And then you just kinda move forward. It's like, well, I'm still standing and I'm in love with my wife and my kids are growing up well and I feel good about myself and I'm happy with the music that I'm making. To quote The Big Lebowski, as I am often compelled to do: 'Nothing is fucked here.'"