“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.