Thursday, September 3, 2009

Pedro the Doubter

In light of what follows, it's a strange coincidence that I featured songs by XTC and Pedro the Lion this week. XTC has written one of the more famous songs about atheism, "Dear God", an open letter to the Almighty, blaming him for a host of ills and concluding with an adamant proclamation of unbelief. I've always found the song deeply though perhaps unintentionally ironic; if Andy Partridge doesn't believe in God, why is he so pissed at him? Unbelief comes across as his means of punishing God, and the song illustrates the importance of will to belief and the bizarre contortions of humankind's fallen nature.

I revisit this aged tune because we're in for a repeat. David Bazan, formerly of Pedro the Lion, releases his first solo full-length Curse Your Branches soon, and early track leaks seem to rehash the above themes. For a long time, I've admired Bazan as a songwriter and felt a fair connection to him. We shared the Christian faith, a disdain for its mainstream culture and a certain fondness for witty vulgarity. (Sample oft-quoted lyric: You were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord/To hear the voice of the Spirit begging you to shut the f--- up) However, we've always differed on this - my greatest doubts have always been provoked by the hypocrisies of Christians, and his by the apparent injustice of God himself. This theme has become clearer and clearer in more recent recordings.

Bazan has stated in recent interviews that he now considers himself an agnostic, but he's one-upped Andy Partridge by including at least two songs on the new album that are directly addressed to God. "When We Fell" and "In Stitches" are both barbed prayers of divorce and rebellion, the latter mocking God's response to Job as "defensive". Both tunes confirm Bazan's unshakable faith in a divine authority - if he is agnostic it is with respect to God's nature, not his existence. It doesn't affect my central point, but I shouldn't fail to mention that the new songs are musically Bazan's best ever.

I'm rather ambivalent about the whole thing. First of all, we can never be sure with Bazan's what character he's playing when he sings, and I don't know that these new songs were really born from inner monologue. He could be commenting on the absurdity of the struggle for theodicy from either a truly agnostic or truly believing perspective. I'm not holding out for this - these songs come across as very personal. Let's assume that these songs are honest. On the one hand, Bazan's spiritual condition is out of whack. On the other, doubts, rebellions and wanderings are not fixed things and another album or two could find Bazan confessing his pride and returning to faith. And that will be quite a batch of songs to hear.

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