Pitchfork: N/A Rolling Stone: N/A Metacritic: 81 Spin: N/A
Released: September 2009
Hard To Be [LISTEN]
Bless This Mess
Please, Baby, Please
Curse Your Branches
When We Fell
Lost My Shape
Not too many people (unless you travel in fortunate circles) are familiar with Pedro The Lion. Even less have heard of David Bazan, the ex-frontman from the now defunct group. I actually became aware of the latter’s music before giving Pedro a shot (still on my to-do list). I quickly became aware that Curse Your Branches, Bazan’s first solo effort since his band days, deserved considerable attention and praise that I only hoped it would receive with the masses. From the few sources I’ve tapped to confirm this, I’m pretty sure it has.
My affection for the album is probably due in part to a more acoustic introduction to the artist via a house show that one of my friends was lucky enough to host this past summer. Finding willing fans to put him up for the more intimate shows, he was able to debut new material, generate income and maintain a low profile per the request of his record label. I sat on a hardwood floor just feet from the artist and took in his penetrating vocal melodies and guitar rhythms, only recognizing a handful of songs that I’d studied up on in weeks prior. I was moved by the emotion behind his lyrics which were, quite literally, the most personal and heartfelt lyrics I’d ever heard in a collection of songs. This is easy to imagine upon discovering that Curse Your Branches has been dubbed a breakup album…with God.
Bazan grew up in a very religious home, considering himself a devout evangelical even up through his year with Pedro The Lion. Soonafter, however, he began to rethink his personal theology, and emerged from his hiatus a very public doubter. Some fans have criticized the level of production and instrumentation given his new solo album, favoring the simple marriage between Bazan’s voice and his guitar as showcased during his house tours. It’s an understandable position, but there are merits to each sound.
The album opens with “Hard To Be”, and more specifically, its one and-a-half minute long intro of piano, then added synthesizer, then added percussion, Bazan then entering guitar and vocals in one of his most lyrically obvious of spiritual complaints. “Wait just a minute, you expect me to believe that all this misbehaving grew from one enchanted tree/ And helpless to fight it, we should all be satisfied with this magical explanation for why the living die.” Later, he uses the metaphor of graduation to explain his religious crossover: “I swung my tassle 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.” Despite the dark undertones of the track, it’s become a favorite of mine for its simple and catchy melody coupled with Bazan’s candor.
Track #2, “Bless This Mess”, is a less anxious Bazan who seems to be having fun with his new band (not sure if it’s him or them on the recording) in this quirky light rocker of a song. God is still a central theme. I’m especially fond of the line, “Through a darkened mirror I have seen my own reflection/ And it makes me want to be a better man…after another drink.” The album continues with the beautifully simple “Please, Baby, Please”, consisting almost entirely of Bazan on his acoustic guitar. The song sets aside the God talk to explore what seems to be Bazan’s relationships with his wife and daughter. It’s got a pace like a locomotive, carrying a tone about it perhaps suitable for a drive with the windows down.
Title track “Curse Your Branches” is maybe the most symbolic but still pointed song on the album, addressing the idea of passed down beliefs among family, and the pitfalls therein. He sings, “All fallen leaves should curse their branches/ For not letting them decide where they should fall/ And not letting them refuse to fall at all.” Musically, Bazan’s thoughtful lyrics are met with a pleasant medley of electric guitar and light percussion. His personal struggles are even shared concerning his own confusion with his disbelief: “Digging up the root of my confusion/ If no one planted it, how does it grow?/ And why are some hell bent upon there being an answer/ While some are quite content to answer ‘I don’t know’?”
Skipping slightly forward, “When We Fell” sets the bitter but confident lyrics from Bazan to the album’s most classic rock-style tune, with a thumping beat, aggressive bassline, and even bluesy background vocals atop another cluster of simple and catchy chords. In it, he is perhaps harshest with the God he once was so close to, prodding, “Did You push us when we fell?” He even comes close to threatening the God he no longer believes in concerning his mother: “If my mother cries when I tell her what I have discovered/ Then I hope she remembers she taught me to follow my heart/ And if you bully her like you’ve done me with fear of damnation/ then I hope she can see You for what You are.” He concludes: “If you knew what would happen and made us just the same/ Then you my Lord can take the blame.”
The album closer, “In Stitches”, is a slow, organ/piano/guitar ballad, a morose Bazan crafting what feels like his final frustrated feelings toward God into a sorrowful, unforgiving tale of abandonment, sometimes drifting into heartwrenching falsetto. “I need no other memory of the bits of me I left/ When all this lethal drinking is to hopefully forget about You.” His closing lines are the most pointed: “When Job asked You the question You responded ‘Who are you/ To challenge your Creator?’ Well if that one part is true/ It makes you sound defensive like you had not thought it through/ Enough to have an answer like you might have bit off more than You could chew.”
Bazan has stated in interviews that the album is less an album about breaking up with God, and more an album about breaking up with the particular Biblical narrative of God. This sentiment permeates throughout the album, his lyrics really the star of the show (for anyone interested in mulling over such philosophical/ideological/theological thoughts). They become the reason we’re captivated, in the same way Dylan’s songs did decades ago, and, like Dylan, Bazan’s got the music to back himself up.