12.16.2013

A Wonderfully Conflicted Evening: David Bazan Concert Review


David Bazan performing solo at Thirty-Thirty Cofee
(photo courtesy of Ty Paluska).
Last Wednesday night my wife and I got to see the second night of David Bazan's two night sold out stint at Thirty-Thirty Cofee in Peoria (Peoria!).  It was wonderful.

At around 9:30 he and his tour manager (that's a guess) parked right outside the coffee shop.  He grabbed his guitar out of the trunk, came in the main door where all our chairs were facing, pulled out his guitar, and started playing, no sound system, just a man and his guitar.  He played without pretension and with honest, raw passion and practiced skill. Bazan's voice is a rarity.  It is a husky strong baritone and yet somehow delicate, commanding the room even when he easily enters into a raspy falsetto.  In more ways than one he resembles the big ole bear he played next to the whole night (Thirty-Thirty's mascot, a massive stuffed polar bear painted black to fit in with the German decor of the now defunct Jumer's castle lodge in Peoria).

I am always astounded at natural performers, performers who are so confident and at peace within themselves that their art just emanates from them.  They give off the aura that they do not need us to be there as an audience, that they would be creating anyway, and that they have merely chosen to play for us as a pure gift.  Bazan is this kind of performer.


As he is known for doing, over the course of the evening he took numerous breaks in between songs to answer questions, all of which he answered with candor and sincerity.  After the show he spent a lot of time with his fans, taking lots of pictures with them, each of which he adorned with a robust toothy grin.  The man is generous and a joy to be around.

Bazan posing with some friends of ours.
Man, I love that guy's smile
It was clear from when he first walked in that his audience was a bit in awe of him, that they revered him and have come to see him over the years as a sage; a prophetic voice that speaks truth like a surgeon's knife cuts through flesh by way of getting to the infested part of a body.  Whether from his Christian years or post-Christian years, his voice has become their voice, articulating their experience as strugglers in their faith, as doubters, as hypocrisy-callers, as prodigals, and even as liberated atheists.

Throughout his career Bazan has gained a following for two main reasons:
1. his unique sounding songs (this includes the melodies, the idiosyncratic ways he plays guitar chords, and the intangible quality his unique singing voice brings to the music)

and

2. Captivating and heartrending narrative lyrics.

Nearly all of Bazan's songs are narrative in form, whether they are personal (more so lately) or fictional (more so during the Pedro years) and short-story like (that is, self-contained to one song) or novel-like (that is, laying out a narrative over the course of an album or EP).  At Wednesday night's show the over-arching narrative was his ongoing loss of faith and subsequent exodus from the Christian world.  Besides his newer material he even managed to change a few lyrics from older work, most notably from one of my favorite songs of his, a Pedro song called "The Fleecing" (Instead of saying "I could tell you why I doubt it and why I still believe" he now sings it as "I could tell you why I doubt it and why I don't believe").  There were a few times when he spoke about his (loss of) faith during the show--when the questions thrown at him by audience members pertained to it--and at one of those times the audience gave him an approving clap.  He talked about how even though it is still difficult to have left his faith, especially since so much of his family is still Christian, ultimately his leaving is the best thing he has ever done. This is the happiest he has ever been he claims, and he now realizes he never needed that whole sad affair to begin with (i.e. Christianity, the Church, and the culture that goes with it).  After saying this, I even saw some people I know are Christians applaud, which I do not exactly understand.  Maybe they were praising his honesty, his courage for speaking difficult truths.

But this is where for me an otherwise wonderful evening became conflicted.  As a Christian a lot of Bazan's new songs are hard to listen to.  I can enjoy them aesthetically both for their music and lyrics, but as soon as the aesthetics start to mingle with the meaning, the cognitive dissonance kicks in and I just go "Man, I'm sorry, but I can't go there.  I can't rejoice in this with you. I'm just sad now..." In a Facebook conversation regarding the show I remarked to someone that I find Bazan's music particularly conflicting because I have journeyed with him so long in his story.  It is not just typical "secular" music reflecting a typical "secular" worldview.  I have no problem listening to music that does not espouse my belief system.  Sure, I might sometimes react to a song negatively when I feel it goes against my core beliefs, but I also give artists who do not share my faith a lot of grace in this area. In other words, I do not require an artist to believe the way I do in order for me to listen to and enjoy them.

David Bazan is different though.  He was once "one of us" and now he has very willingly exited the fold, if you will, and this has become the main focus of his lyrics for the past few years.  This is painful and heartbreaking.  Some might praise him for honestly expressing his doubts, for bravely admitting what others out of fear keep hidden, but this is not what he is doing with his art, at least not currently.  The night of the concert I jokingly said in a status update on Facebook that I was going to see an "Atheist Rock" concert, and while of course there is no such thing as an "Atheist music industry" equivalent to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), there is still a hint of truth in the title. Allow me to explain.  A vast difference exists between writing a lyric from the perspective of a believer plagued by his doubts and a nonbeliever who is openly "cursing his branches" as the title to one of his albums puts it. Thus, he is not articulating doubt, he is advocating apostasy.  I am not faulting him for this. A prophet will speak the words he is compelled to speak, and an artist will create the art that is true to him or herself.  But this makes it incredibly difficult for me as a partaker of his art to fully enjoy and immerse myself in it, which is what I do with art I care about.

In fact, to take it deeper, as a Christian I would say much of his recent art fails to adhere to the transcendentals of truth, beauty, and goodness.  While true for Bazan, the lyrics are not true for me, and while beautiful melodically and poetically, the songs ultimately fail to be beautiful because they fundamentally fail to be good.  It is not good (to me) that he has rejected God, that he has walked away from God's people, and that "the crew have killed the captain" (from "In Stitches"). Perhaps his songs would meet the "true, beautiful, and good" criteria to an an atheist or to someone who does not practice a religion, but the likely possibility of the transcendentals even existing in a materialistic universe devoid of a loving and creating God is a discussion I will leave until another time.

I did, however, feel another tension in listening to Bazan's songs during the concert.  If the first tension is between enjoying art that I "disagree" with, then the next tension is knowing that art should nearly always be challenging, provoking, conflicting. Thus, the conflict within me doubles back on itself resulting in a tension within a tension. Most of my lifelong favorite works of art have confronted me in significant ways in my perception of the world.  Often, I even adamantly oppose what the work stands for, such as in 2001: A Space Odyssey, my all-time favorite film, with its notion that violence is the catalyst to the human race's evolution . Good art compels us to keep looking at it, contemplating it, and listening to it--even when it is painful to do so. And so, I keep looking and listening to David Bazan's music, searching for meaning and understanding, even as I in many ways stand against it.  The challenge in partaking of any art form, especially art that one finds distasteful, is to be willing to continually be provoked in order to see its deeper truths, bolder beauties, and overarching good.

My prayer is that Bazan and the generation he represents be willing to take the same stance with art that conflicts with them.  That even as they provoke and poke holes in what they were once a part of, they would allow themselves to still be provoked.

While Bazan's art might lead the non-religious to rejoicing, my hope is the sadness his music provokes in the Christian would lead them to prayer, prayer not only for Bazan but for a disillusioned, cynical, and wandering generation who wants nothing to do with God and his Church.  Prayer also for this Church, that it would soften and learn how to walk with and listen to those who wrestle with their faith like Bazan has done.

A big thanks goes out to the staff of Thirty-Thirty Coffee, especially Trey Mowder, Sarah Trost, and Ty Paluska, who all played a major part in bringing Bazan here.  Many of us are very grateful.


You can find most of David Bazan's music on Soundcloud for streaming:

5 comments:

Chris Cummings said...

Found this through FB, great post with some insight I can definitely related to this, both to the points about Bazaan and his music and the over-arching poitns as well. Good stuff!

Eric M said...

You have had me thinking about this all week now, and I think you are onto something about this being different than secular or irreligious music because of his particular journey, both personal and musical. Though I just went to enjoy the show as I admire Bazan's voice and lyrics, so I was unaware that he had completely left the faith (I no longer follow music news of any kind.)

I think the way you and I approach music, and thus art, is notably different. I have very little musical ability, while I happen to know that you are quite gifted. (I've seen you sing while standing exactly where Bazan was standing.) I tend to value most highly the art that most challenges me or even mocks me. I started listening to Pedro in high school largely because it was marketed as "Jars of Clay for artists and assholes" and I fell in love with it because of David's honesty, not because it was Christian.

While I can no longer identify with his lyrics, I appreciate that his lyrics are no less honest. On the spectrum of belief- I'm going the opposite direction of David Bazan; but I think there is a need for people to talk honestly about the way the church has failed them. Both for those who have been similarly let down by us and for us in the Body- so that we may learn from our mistakes.

Finally- I find it encouraging how focused on faith he still seems to be, even if he has none of his own. As I said on your facebook thread, most christian artists don't talk about God as much as he does. I don't talk about God as much as he does!

Thanks for writing this article and effectively sentencing me to another week of deep thought about how I approach art.

Jake T said...

Man. I wish I had known about that show (and had the gumption to get off my butt and drive up there to see it).

You've done a good job articulating how I feel about Bazan's work, specifically Curse Your Branches, an album I can only barely make it through for exactly the reasons you describe, and perhaps one other: it's heartrending.

Chris Marchand said...

Jake T and Chris: thanks for agreeing with me! ;) But seriously, I'm glad you're conflicted too. I hope that people don't believe in God anymore or aren't religious anymore also get conflicted when they listen to his music, because it IS conflicted. His art isn't easy no matter where you're at on these issues.

Chris Marchand said...

Eric, thanks for another response! I'm glad to get you thinking. I bet we could have a nice chat about it all. The only thing I would say in response is that, for me, approaching this as a Christian, I would say he's no longer being helpful, no longer doing good for God, Christianity, the Church, etc. He's no longer pointing out problems in order to correct, he's asking people to leave with him. Somebody on FB put it well, saying he was a stronger voice from within the Church than when he's been outside of it pointing fingers.