“Wolves at the Door,” the opening track on David Bazan’s new Strange Negotiations, sets a firm tone for the entire album. An urgent melody rises over a haunting guitar riff, while the rhythm section relentlessly drives the straight-ahead rock song. These elements framing Bazan’s initial parable—and the rest of the album—were recorded with a backing band, a rarity for Bazan. A more sturdy structure is evident throughout this collection of songs, presumably a byproduct of a recording session that consisted of the full band rather than the piecing together of Bazan.
Largely gone is the electronic flare of keyboards, machined percussion, and artificial harmony dubs that have manifested in Bazan’s more recent work. As a result, fans who were introduced to Bazan via Curse Your Branches, his last and most acclaimed album, might be somewhat mystified at the more rudimentary sound of Strange Negotiations.
But those more familiar with him will recognize the songwriting as distinctively Bazan. The off rhythms and quirky guitar licks of tracks like “People” and “Level With Yourself” could fit right into an old Pedro the Lion album (Bazan’s first outfit), and his knack for blending the ugly and sweet, in what I can only describe as damn pretty melodies, is highlighted in tunes like “Future Past” and “Don’t Change.” And Bazan’s voice continues to reveal a man earnest with every syllable he speaks, whispers, or howls, whether in stone cold sarcasm or vulnerable falsetto. The players, who had already toured extensively with Bazan, are a perfect complement to his established sound.
Curse Your Branches was a pronounced, heartwrenching expression of Bazan’s departure from his former Christian faith; it was brilliant musically, if wanting as theological argument. As a result of that departure, Bazan’s spiritual eyes have shifted to a broader examination of culture than on his previous albums. The religious language of his past still adorns the lyrics (he quotes the hymn “Be Thou My Vision” and uses allusions like open eyes on Easter morning), but these newest songs are otherwise devoid of much explicitly religious content. Appearances of the faith tradition that Bazan acknowledged on CYB might persist as a ghost, if nothing else, but they are faint.
The album seems most concerned with walls and distances that exist within and between human relationships. “Level with Yourself” nods to the necessity of certain fences for honesty’s sake, while the title track sounds like a wasteland lamentation from a culture that has sold its soul and reaped an empty loneliness (the narrator feels “like a stranger in [his] hometown”). Bazan is not only frustrated with the lay of the land, but also at how elusive bridging unnecessary gaps and retaining necessary divisions is.
“Virginia” recounts a dream that is at turns nostalgic and regretful, musing about the relationship between an unbeliever who blissfully resists the preoccupations of her world’s moral concerns with some peers who, perhaps, missed out on a real or deeper friendship and community because of a naïve view of religious and moral distance. “Wolves at the Door” is a rebuke to those who would lower certain walls, letting a rabid enemy in at the expense of those they expose to danger. To Bazan, lines must be drawn, but we seem doomed to cling to the wrong ones (as in “Virginia”) and to carelessly ignore the others. “Future Past” describes the constant mix-up:
You only trust the foxes when they’re cooped up with the hens
You’re sticking to the black and blue around you when you should be making friends
One reason these split allegiances are so poorly navigated is that the people behind them are selfish, foolish, and generally rotten. Bazan repeats a judgment he made in CYB: blaming sinfulness on Eden’s fall is a copout. But he doesn’t deny the reality of human depravity, regardless of where it originates. “Messes” is a look into the dark, where relationships with addictions and lusts eat at and spoil the relationships with loved ones. “Don’t Change” cynically dismisses most self-improvement as superficial or hopeless.
Bazan seems to think there is a lack of a principled way out of a fragmented society. He sings in “People”:
You’ve gotta find the truth, and when you find that truth don’t budge;
Until the truth you found begins to change, and it does. I know.
Truth for Bazan used to be a divine person (Jesus) who lived by and supplied absolute and total guidance for his followers, but now Bazan views the relationship between truth, himself, and others as inescapably complicated and difficult to carry out (“You’ve gotta take your lumps,” sings Bazan of the times when the truth gets you into unavoidable trouble).
But for all of the stern gazing into the broken nature of people, the album ends on an optimistic note. Bazan sings to his wife on “Won’t Let Go,” a sweet rejection of any obstacle that threatens the flesh-and-blood closeness of their relationship. Only death will ultimately divide their communion, and it will still have to, by Bazan’s promise, “pry my fingers loose.”