ANDYVISION - watch me try to be creative. live.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Fewer Moving Parts (Fewer Broken Pieces)

I saw a genius last night. His name is David Bazan, a songwriter from the fertile musical fields of Seattle, Washington. Although it was the first time that I've seen him perform, I've been following his work over the years from his ever-changing lineup of Pedro the Lion to his "electronic" side project Headphones and now on to his solo career.

One of the most beautiful things about Bazan's music is that he just doesn't give a shit. I say that meaning that his work evolves in whatever way seems right at the time. Songs that were once a full-band arrangement find a new intimacy as acoustic live. Quiet acoustic songs are transformed into gloriously overdriven beasts when fed through an amp. Keys suddenly find their voice as strings. It all moves seamlessly, which makes sense seeing as he has actually played nearly all instruments on most of his releases over the years. Nothing is sacred to him. Just as an another example, Pedro the Lions's roster has included at least twenty different musicians over the years. Really, whatever he finds on-hand is all that's needed to create music. The medium alters the message. David himself has lent a hand on numerous albums and tours over the years, notably linked with many of Seattle buddies such as TW Walsh, Starflyer 59, Damien Jurado, and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. (All brilliant acts in their own right.)

However, changing your backing band is nothing earth-shattering. (Look at Axl Rose.) What is so breathtaking about Bazan lies his unorthodox tackling of topics that no other songwriter has ever dealt with so deeply and extensively in their oeuvres: God, sex, hypocrisy, drugs, alcoholism, adultery, religion, politics, anger, depression, hope, redemption. It all seems like an unlikely consortium of subjects, yet in Bazan they meld into one overarching study of the human condition. Were one to quickly glance over his lyrics or behavior they would arrive at the conclusion that he a confused, living contradiction. He effortlessly crossing the line between the sacred and the profane, using the phrases "the Lord" and "shut the fuck up" in adjacent lines, comparing the sexual gratification of a man engaging in adultery to the bliss of an intimate union with God. He sings beautiful renditions of songs like "Amazing Grace" while being drunk off his ass.

It's certainly not a very comfortable place to be, yet Bazan seems unable to find himself anywhere else. The truth is, he has not come to grips with his own spirituality yet. We find him thanking God for his grace in one song only to curse him in another saying "God's not listening" and "what a cruel God we've got." His relationship with the Almighty is like that of an abusive father; he longs to be connected and, at times, feels his love but ultimately finds that He provides nothing but pain and confusion in his life. To listen to his records or see him perform is to actually experience a man working out his own spirituality in front of you. It's a window into a part of humanity that we rarely see so openly. Of course, it's not all the Lord's fault. Bazan unashamedly admits to his own short-comings and missteps. He is a human being who can't seem to overcome his own iniquities. But is it ultimately his fault for being an imperfect sinner or God's for allowing sin to enter the world in the first place?

Listening to his songs you quickly realize that no one is safe from his biting criticism—drug abusers, adulterers, bad parents, politicians, God, the church, priests, music critics, his friends and, most of all, himself. He might seem like a mindless street-corner preacher if he didn't turn his harsh eye onto his own self and his faith. Trying to beat the sin in his life he seems to immerse himself in it in order to understand and hopefully overcome it. Hopefully.

This sort of behavior raises the sorts of questions with no easy answers. It is what marginalizes Bazan while also making him hypnotically accessible. Thus, he falls into a terribly small niche market. His work is far too spiritual for the secular world yet far too blasphemous for the religious. Shunned by both, he often finds himself alone, a result that's his own damn fault.

Even if you're not a particularly "spiritual" person, there is something spellbinding about Bazan's work. Perhaps its the rawness of it all. He's transparent. He seems to be a man working through his own personal and spiritual problems and misunderstandings as his stands on stage, naked and unguarded. He's the contemporary counterpart of the Old Testament prophets. Bearded, brooding, inherently and tragically flawed, he proclaims what he sees in the world around him and in the darkness of his own heart. Even at concerts during opening acts, he sits in the back of the room by himself, beer in hand, peering out at the crowd, taking it all in in some sort of tortured solitude.

While being a tormented recluse off-stage, once he picks up his guitar, he suddenly finds an expressive and accessible voice. Watching him perform is like watching a man teetering on the edge of building: All of his insecurities and frustrations lay exposed in the open air, and his voice booms desperate and unrestrained through the speakers. It feels like an extension of his grand opus of contradiction—harsh yet fragile, raw yet warm, slurred yet accentuated. The guitar work is jagged and exposed while still somehow remaining tender. Even as he sings, his face contorts in genuine emotion as well as in oddly uncontrollable ticks of his eyes and mouth.

Seeing one of his solo show gives one a new intimacy with his work. If you know his album work you quickly begin to discover new things in his lyrics that you may never have noticed. Unlike seeing a great band live that puts on an exciting show, David's earnestness wraps you up in every word as he articulates it. Through his intonation you notice a subtle irony in a line of lyrics that you'd never heard before. Maybe it's an unexpected juxtaposition that seemed commonplace until that very moment. Last night I found myself nearly laughing out loud at several points—as much from the sheer joy of discovery as from the brilliant phrases that were escaping from his lips just ten feet away.

But if you think that David is all torment and pain, you're wrong. He's not a humorless, brooding prophet of doom. Ultimately one can find a hope and redemption buried deep in his music. It may take some wading through pain, wrong turns and even death, but in the end, despite it all, we find that there might be hope for each of us yet. It's a microcosm of life. Sometimes we just have to cling to hope or have a good laugh to keep our heads from rolling off. Even during the show, he had the audience laughing as he asked if anyone had any questions between songs. Yet even he when he cracks a joke his humor is dark and beautiful.

Really, I think that the reason why I personally feel so connected to his work is because it's a remarkably close dissection of my own life—a confusing stew of the sacred and the profane, that neither I nor Bazan really understand. Last night as I watched him, mouth agape and eyes twitching painfully on stage, I wondered to myself, If David one day found himself standing in front of God, what would God say to him? What would he say back? Then, what about me?

In the end, perhaps the best example of who David Bazan is can be demonstrated by how he ended last night's show. "I'm smashed, man," he mumbled to himself before launching into a beautifully raw rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

[If any of this has interested you, check out this great high-quality .zip file of last Sunday's solo show at Asheville's Grey Eagle. It's a lot of new stuff that'll be on his new album out in June/July. For a more full-band sense of his stuff, give a listen to Pedro the Lion's first album It's Hard to Find a Friend for more personal writing or the final Achilles Heel for a poppier, narrative style.]

1 comment:

mike faria said...

gah! the link to the zip file is broken :(