It starts with a lush, instrumental intro. A surprisingly long instrumental intro. As if the singer were reluctant to begin singing. As if he knows that what he's going to sing will be difficult -- difficult for him to sing, difficult for his audience to hear -- and is putting it off, or maybe just trying to cushion the blow. As if he knows that once he begins singing, he won't be able to take it back.
The intro is disjointed at first, with a loose, jagged rhythm, and a melody that wanders in and out of harmony and dissonance. Then it gradually picks up cohesion, and motion. Like a mind making itself up, and gathering up the courage to speak. It takes a series of deep musical breaths, lingering for a moment... and another moment... and then just one moment longer.
And then the voice begins.
You've heard the story
You know how it goes
Once upon a garden
We were lovers with no clothes
Fresh from the soil
We were beautiful and true
In control of our emotions
'Til we ate the poison fruit
And now it's hard to be, hard to be, hard to be
A decent human being.
Wait just a minute...
And you know that this isn't just another pop record.
David Bazan is the former leader of the rock group Pedro the Lion, known for being just about the only Christian rock group that rock critics liked and took seriously. Bazan's Christianity was deep, serious, and lifelong: he was raised Pentecostal, attended Bible college, and made his faith the centerpiece of his musical career. But in 2004, Bazan had a crisis of faith, and eventually left both his religion and the band. He also, not coincidentally, began to have a serious drinking problem at this time, which severely disturbed both his life and career for several years. He's now in recovery... from both the alcoholism and the religion. (He calls himself an agnostic, not an atheist -- or he did as of this interview -- but he seems to be a pretty strong agnostic, one with whom a lot of atheists will identify.)
And he's made an album about all of it.
I have become completely obsessed with "Curse Your Branches." My wife and co-workers would be deeply grateful for the invention of headphones if they knew how often I was playing it. The story is mesmerizing; the ideas are fascinating; the music is bone-chillingly gorgeous, making me want to both sing and cry. (And I love the fact that Bazan enunciates so clearly; I hate when singers make you guess at what the hell they're singing.) You do have to like this sort of thing: lush, haunting melodies and harmonies; intensely personal, intensely confessional lyrics; all in a firm but gentle rock vibe just a notch harder than slow-core. I realize it may not be to everyone's taste. But if this is remotely in your musical ballpark, I passionately encourage you all to give it a listen.
"Curse Your Branches" brings a refreshing and insightful new angle to many of the classic questions of belief and non-belief. I love Bazan's take on God's final reply to Job:
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.
I'd never thought of it that way -- but Bazan is right. When I first read Job, I was furious at what a half-assed answer God gave at the end of it. I'd heard my whole life that Job was the Bible's answer to the question of why there's suffering, I was really curious to see what it had to say... and this was the best God could come up with? "I am the great and powerful Oz! Who the hell are you, puny human? You will respect my authoritah!" Bazan's take on this is brilliantly perceptive. He's absolutely right: the answer to Job does sound like God was just pulling the answer out of his ass. Like he'd never seriously thought about the question. Like he'd been torturing Job for no good reason, just to win a bet with Lucifer, and had never really thought about why he was doing it... or whether it was the right thing to do. Or whether anything he did was the right thing to do.
And I love the fact that Bazan looks at the classic problem of evil, not as the question of why there's evil out there in the world, but as the question of "why it's hard to be a decent human being." It's so easy for humans to position evil as something outside ourselves, something that has nothing to do with us. But Bazan has hit the nail on the head. We all have the potential to do evil, and we all act on that potential more than we should. The question of evil isn't, "Why is there all that bad evil out there, evil that we have to suffer from through no fault of our own?" The question is, "Why is it hard for us to be decent human beings?"
Interestingly -- for godless listeners as well as for believers -- Bazan makes it clear that his questioning and eventual relinquishing of his faith are deeply rooted in the values he learned as a Christian. He touches on this in "When We Fell," when he sings: "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 it comes out vividly in the heartbreakingly brave "Bearing Witness," in which he frames his disavowal of his faith as part of his religious tradition:
Though it may alienate your family
And blur the lines of your identity
Let go of what you know and honor what exists
Son, that's what bearing witness is
Daughter, that's what bearing witness is.
Yes. When I talk about how deeply I treasure reality, and how much more important it is than my own petty wishful thinking about the world... that's what I'm getting at.
But what I like best about "Curse Your Branches," and what I think makes it such an important listen for atheists and other non-believers, is how vividly it expresses the pain that Bazan went through with his deconversion. The album is wrenchingly honest about the sadness and loss, the disorientation and bewilderment, the alcoholism, the struggle to re-define himself and his place in the world, that Bazan went through when he left his religion. It reminds me a little bit of Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God" performance piece: it's not a series of godless arguments or ideas, but an intimate, intensely emotional story about one person's experience with losing their religion.
A little while back, The Chaplain wrote an incisive and hilarious piece on what she called the Boyfriend Jesus: Christian songs that sing about Jesus as if he were an object of romantic and even erotic love. "Curse Your Branches" is a little like that. But instead of being love songs to God, it's a breakup album. It took me a couple of listens to realize that, whenever it seems like Bazan is singing to a wife or a lover, he's almost always actually singing to God. When he sings about drinking "to hopefully forget about you"; when he sings that "When I called you from Atlanta/ You refused to speak"... he's singing about God: the God he's questioning, the God he's giving up, the God he finally let go of.
Which makes you realize what a strange and difficult breakup deconversion is. Bazan -- and millions of other former believers -- had a deeply personal relationship with God. A relationship that ended, not when he realized that things weren't working out, but when he realized that the other person didn't exist. Wasn't there. Was entirely made up in his head.
There's no other breakup like this. It can cut the ground of your reality out from under you, in every which way imaginable. It doesn't just force you to rethink your entire future without this person. It forces you to redefine your entire past with them. Try to imagine what divorce would be like if it meant realizing that your spouse of many years was a figment of your imagination -- that your entire history with them was an illusion -- and you'll get a sense of what this might feel like.
And this may be what makes this album most valuable to atheists. It's a moving reminder of just exactly how difficult giving up religion can be, what an emotional wrench it often is: not just because it means giving up family and friends and social support, but because it means giving up a relationship with the single most important being of your entire life. I never had this sort of belief; even when I was a believer, I never believed in a personal God with whom I had a relationship. Hearing what this relationship was like for Bazan -- and what it was like to let it go -- helps me have more compassion for believers who are desperately trying to hang on to their beliefs. And it helps me have more patience when I'm engaging with them.
It's important, I think, for the godless to remember this: when we ask people to question their religion, we're actually asking a lot. Atheism can be full of meaning and happiness, great comfort and great joy, and most atheists I know are thrilled to have taken that step and to be on the other side. But the process of coming out into atheism can be painful and difficult, and it's more so for some people than for others. When we ask people to question their faith, we need to remember this. We need to be patient with believers who are questioning their beliefs. And we need to work harder on making godlessness a safe place to land when believers finally do let go.
"Curse Your Branches" is a thoughtful, touching, inspiring reminder of all of this. And it's a freaking gorgeous rock album to boot. I'm thrilled to have discovered it. I'm intensely grateful to everyone in this blog and on Facebook who told me about it. And I'm recommending it passionately to everyone.