David Bazan recently hit the stage at Lincoln Hall with a revved-up band and recharged setlist. You’d be forgiven for expecting a morose affair. Last year he released a highly publicized “break-up with God” album, Curse Your Branches. To support it, he embarked on a solo tour, strumming a classical guitar in intimate living room shows.
Bazan has always had great songs. His recordings have continued to evolve with a whack-a-mole array of collaborators. Unfortunately, the live renderings of those songs were often just serviceable. No matter how talented a rotating cast, you can’t fake the on-stage chemistry that comes from steadily playing together. As he descended deeper into his crisis of faith, retired Pedro the Lion, and embraced booze, he produced some uncomfortably shambolic solo shows.
Forget all that. This incarnation of Bazan + Band fired on all cylinders. They put the pedal to the metal on “Transcontinental,” torqued-up classics like “When They Really Get to Know You,” and rewired “Gas and Matches” with gritty guitars. The band displayed the veteran chemistry that comes with a full tour under their belt. Sideman Blake Wescott provided counterpoint on guitar as well as ballsy background vocals on “Start Without Me” and “That’s How I Remember.” Young drummer Alex Westcoat completed Bazan’s shift from shoegaze to power pop with his energetic timekeeping.
Bazan reasserted himself as one of indie-rock’s most articulate songwriters. He also kept the sing-along crowd on their toes with lyrical change-ups to reflect his renunciation of faith. On “The Fleecing,” he frankly replaced “why I still believe it” with “why I don’t believe it”.
In a twist of convention, David Bazan has cleaned up, and lost Jesus. He has embraced agnosticism. But far from leading him into a downward spiral, he’s actually become a more powerful performer. Many of his old songs are thematically schizophrenic; ersatz morality tales full of gratuitous infidelity and misogyny that might’ve scandalized evangelical audiences, but fail to shock in a post-LaBute world. And the increasing desperation of his characters dovetailed with his own edging toward alcoholism.
In contrast, the new Bazan tunes are honestly sobering. He’s retired the pulp fiction and started over with stark autobiography. Interestingly, as I interviewed him and Westcoat about the qualities they appreciate in great musicians, the word “spirituality” came up a couple times. While he may have left behind tidy religious doctrines, it’s still hard to avoid some numinous terms when talking about creative expression.