Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012

David Bazan Revisits "Control"

By Evan Rytlewski
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During my college years in Madison, most of the touring indie-rock bands of interest played at a now-defunct basement coffeeshop with unclear ties to the church next door. I never fully understood that place. The regulars were almost eerily quiet and polite, and the atmosphere was always so much more muted than the revelrous punk shows I was used to from Milwaukee that I never quite knew how to act. They operated under a foreign set of customs that I could never crack—Why were so few of them talking? And why were they sitting down? And how did they know when to sit down?—and though I admired them, I never fit in with them. As Christians, they all glowed. I did not glow.

Ten years later, I’m no longer exposed much to the Christian indie-rock scene—I’m not even sure if there is much of a Christian indie-rock scene anymore—so seeing David Bazan commemorate the 10th anniversary of Pedro The Lion’s Control at the Cactus Club last night felt a little bit like crashing somebody else’s high school reunion. To my friends in Christian coffeeshop circles, Control was their OK Computer, an ambitious concept record they kept on constant rotation. I listened to it a lot, too, and I enjoyed it, albeit not on the level they did. To fully appreciate Bazan’s songs about crises of faith required having faith.

Bazan’s relationship with religion has only grown more complicated over the years. He now identities as agnostic, and he framed his 2009 solo album Curse Your Branches as “break-up record with God,” but he still holds a unique hold over his old fans, who gazed at him last night with an admiration few acts who play the Cactus Club will ever receive. And though the crowd stood at this show, there were still rituals that were foreign to me. Five songs into the set, Bazan introduced his drummer and bassist, then formally explained that they’d played the first half of Control and were about to play a bunch of other songs before performing the second half of the album, then asked if there were any questions. And there were.  “Why Control?” one fan asked. Because it was the only Pedro The Lion album I could stomach playing every song from, he responded. It also happened to be the most popular one. “Will you make another Headphones album?” Not under that name, he explained; the Headphones album was a commercial failure even by his standards, and nobody came out to see those shows. One by one he dutifully answered all of their inquiries, sharing details about his politics and personal life as fans asked about them, as if this was standard procedure all touring musicians followed.

The songs from Control sounded better than I remembered. It always seemed to me as if that album wanted to soar, but couldn’t, since it was tethered to Bazan’s wallowing presence. This time out, though, Bazan gave his songs freedom to rip, and they took on a sense of finality and certainty missing from their recorded versions. Beyond the record’s manufactured (and frankly rather silly) narrative about a murdered husband, after all, Control was foremost about Bazan’s struggles to reconcile religious devotion with spiritual doubt, a tension the album left unresolved. A decade later, though, that story now has a clear ending: Doubt won. 

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