David Bazan is, ironically, a religion. For a legion of fans--typically college-age males from a more or less religious background--Bazan's songs soundtracked a journey parallel to their own, from a place of fervent devotion to reserved skepticism. A man who thought nothing about committing a cover of "Be Thou My Vision" to record became the man who penned "You heard the voice of the Spirit begging you to shut the f*ck up / You thought it must be the devil, trying to make you go astray / Besides, it could not have been The Lord because you don't believe he talks that way." And that was before he started changing the lyrics to his songs live to make them less devout ("And why I still believe" from "The Fleecing" became "And why I don't believe").
Curse Your Branches was Bazan's first full-length after abandoning the Pedro moniker, and his first record after "officially" parting with his faith. It stands as his most fully formed statement, a collection of tunes alternately sunny and somber, turning his full focus on matters of faith and loss, of what love and joy mean in the face of a world no longer illuminated by the surety of religion. Strange Negotiations, the follow-up, was best characterized by the title track, a dour criticism of our political systems that prioritize corporations over people. It was heavier and darker, recalling the anti-nationalism of his electronic recordings under the name Headphones.
It's fitting, then, that his movement from personal to political would bring him back to electronic sounds, but Bazan has taken an unexpectedly intimate turn. Despite the shift from acoustic guitar to electronics, the songs are immediate and human. The sound is immediately reminiscent of Headphones: big, slow synths, arpeggiated riffs, his voice, ever darker and more richly ragged, holding everything together, providing weight. But lyrically he has doubled down on personal narrative, no longer addressing people-cum-states like Virginia (or even Arizona). Bazan is slowly shedding his characters and his stories and talking more as himself.
It's classic Bazan, and it sounds like a Bazan we've known, but it's an entirely new beast, something predicted in an odd way by his cover of "The Man in Me," a Bob Dylan song affixed as a bonus track to Curse Your Branches. The two facets of Bazan's writing have always been the interplay of his two primary influences: Dylan and Randy Newman, the personal and the political, the earnest and the sardonic. Although the electronics would seem to be an inhuman canvas to work with, Bazan uses it an opportunity to swing towards Dylan and take his most personal turn in years.
"Both Hands" opens in a swirl of bleating electronics that almost mimic horror movie strings before opening up into his lament, "It still feels like / Both hands over my eyes." It's an image of despair, and it's a confession as well, the desire to blot it all out. For a singer who's been world-weary from the first, this darkness is heavy, indeed.
"Oblivion" feels like it might begin a more philosophical theme--"Hello again / Oblivion"--but it again unfolds into the personal: "It's no good to complain / Of fatigue and existential pain / On a six-week solo drive / While your friends work nine to five." Bazan's catalog is filled with characters who go to hell and back, drunk and crashing cars, philandering and ending it all, but Blanco finds him increasingly speaking, we might assume, as himself, the ceaselessly searching singer. "Now is not the time for second thoughts," he says as if chastising himself for dwelling in skepticism. It's not as if we're opening Bazan's diary, but there's less daylight between the narrator and the songwriter.
"Kept Secrets" brings the guitar back to the forefront and provides the album's first truly remarkable chorus, destined to become a live mainstay, with or without the synths. "With You" bounces along on an insistent bassline, and "The Trouble With Boys" absolute floats, a singular, glistening, heartbreaking moment on the album.
There will be those that bemoan the return to the Headphones sound, and for good reason. Bazan isn't an electronic auteur; the sounds aren't often surprising and, at worst, feel a little clumsy, like on the shuffling "Teardrops." However, the gravitational center of Bazan's music has always been his voice, and it has never sounded more full or assured than on Blanco. When he sings "Sit and think / and think / and think / and think / and think" on "Little Landslide," it sounds like a progressive revelation, each successive pronouncement turning it a new way in the light.
Sure, Bazan has been a little somber lately, and this record could have used, at the very least, a "Level With Yourself." It's a slow album, and the echoing drums begin to feel claustrophobic instead of spacious. But under all the reverb, Bazan is as raw and exposed as he's ever been. "Over Again" finds him "Under the covers / Finally alone / No one is listening / No one is home," finding a place to hide from the world, from himself. This record exposes that hiding place takes the hands from over his eyes, and meets our gaze squarely. Fans that find the shift away from guitar disconcerting are missing the gift that is here: the artist as himself, talking as directly as he is able. And with Bazan, the result is a revelation.
Reviewed by: Keegan 1340