David Bazan is known for his unique and interactive performances, so it was no surprise when he paused halfway through playing Pedro the Lion’s album Control to ask if the nervous election day crowd had any questions. A guy standing to my right had been eagerly raising his hand between almost every song and finally had his chance. Why Control?
Bazan started the band Pedro the Lion in 1995 and released four albums and five EPs before permanently disbanding in 2006 and “going solo.” Despite leaving the band name behind, Bazan has continued to play his Pedro the Lion songs mixed in with his newer material released under his own name. In fact, though the name change coincided with his infamous denouncing of his Christian faith, his live shows as a band remained mostly the same even though its philosophical content may have shifted.
I couldn’t help being amused watching the fan’s coy and knowing grin fade as Bazan answered the question with the usual candor and honesty; he was not making a political statement as the fan had hoped. The decision to play Control came after he and his label had decided to make the significant investment of re-releasing all of Pedro the Lion’s albums on vinyl. They needed to promote the investment to make sure it did well. Bazan explained that Control is not only the most popular of their albums, but also the only one he can stand playing in its entirety.
Anyone who has released several albums can probably relate to looking back at your work with some misgivings in the performance. Or, often songs have been played too many times to enjoy them the way you were once able to. However, I’d guess that the prayer like nature of some of his somber hymns and theological proverbs fall too far from his current leanings to perform honestly. Control on the other hand is a dark narrative about the corrosion of a family that ends in personal tragedy in part brought on by the pressures of our corporate and political culture – which was oddly fitting for the tense emotions running on election day in Minneapolis, even if unintentional.
Bazan started the album without introduction. The slow, plodding ballad “Options” introduces a couple walking on a beach holding hands, enjoying each other’s company, while internally contemplating the option of divorce if it were ever needed. The couple professes their love for one another and “mostly” believes each other. From there Bazan broke into higher energy “Rapture.”
One of my absolute favorite Bazan songs, “Rapture” is a sorrowful and tense description of an affair and all of the conflicting emotions bubbling over in a passionate exchange. The bands performance was littered with minor flubs and mistakes common in Bazan’s shows but they only seem to add to the character and emotion of his performance. The song moves deftly to a climaxing (pun intended) chorus where the character equates his orgasm with the rapture and the singing of Christ and his angels — a lyrical choice he had once told me he chose because it was the most sacrilegious thing he thought you could be thinking in that situation.
The song “Progress” continues with even added energy and a distinctly driving drum beat. The characters life grows darker as he loses his job due to a layoffs and corporate greed. The musical tones of “Indian Summer” lighten as the lyrics contrast with more darkness. “All of the experts say you ought to start them young, that way they’ll naturally love the taste of corporate cum,” Bazan adlibbed a “yum, yum” before continuing into the sarcastic chorus “God bless the Indian Summer.” The song “Progress” sees our character sinking into depression as the album comes to a halfway point. Bazan unexpectedly paused, not only to address questions, but also to announce he would play other songs before returning to Control.
Most of the songs he chose were from new Bazan material, including “Cold Beer and Cigarettes” another one of his macabre hits. The evolution of his writing has incorporated new sounds and textures, but has stayed true to his obsession with the darkness embedded in the human experience. He’s quick to point out hypocrisy in sarcastic tones, and just a quick to flaunt his own weaknesses and failings. Oddly, his change in religious beliefs hasn’t changed much about his lyrical topics. He still makes attacks on Christianity, now from the outside. He still attacks the oppressive acts of those in power and criticizes those who follow them.
Eventually there came the pause in the show we’d all been anticipated. Someone in the crowd announces that President Obama has been re-elected. After the cheers subsided, Bazan addressed the crowd. (He’d already expressed both his support for Obama in the election and his disappointment with his performance so far noting “we’re fucked” as it was with Obama, but letting “fuck-whits” like Romeny into office would be far worse. His colorful statements not unlike the sentiments of many Americans’ opinions I’ve heard.)
“I sincerely hope that the amendment to your guy’s constitution does not pass. …we won’t know for a little while. …I do realize that there almost certainly are some Romney/Ryan supporters in the room, and, you know, if you have a real negative feeling right now I am truly sorry. I know I’ve been feeling agitated all day, and if you’re still feeling that way I feel for you. Seriously. But, you know, the gay marriage thing… you’re all on the wrong side of history if you think that’s wrong. It’s a simple thing.”
The crowd broke into applause again at that and he continued to say briefly comment on his hopes that Obama would ensure that Obamacare changes actually took place, noting that he and his family had been without healthcare for two years, and his children will be eligible with preexisting conditions due to Obamacare. He ended on somewhat light her note saying, “I know all the conservatives are thinking, with all the handouts I’m getting I’ll probably never have to work again.” Which got the crowd laughing before he concluded “That ain’t what’s up” before starting back into the music.
The band came back to Control starting with the pensive “Magazine” brooding, “Oh look! Now you’ve earned your wings. Are you an angel or a vulture?” moving into the angry “Rehearsal” where the character reminisces on promises to kill his spouse if he ever caught her “stepping out.” Bazan jumped into two quick scissor kicks as he plated, which I’ve never seen. The hipster in my couldn’t help feeling they were probably ironic scissor kicks — if there is such a thing.
The anticlimactic, slow moving “Second Best” brings our character to the end of a slow boil. His failures are now clear and he sinks into a deep uncomfortable despair. Bazan drags the song to a desperate crawl making a masterful display of his ability to write and perform emotion as the song crescendos to its final climax, “The mattress creeks beneath the symphony of misery and cum,” Bazan raises his voice an octave into the final chorus, much more bombastic and angry than the recorded version.
The bleak music is starkly contrasted with the calm and melodic resolve of the dirge “Priests and Paramedics” where our character finally meets his end, bleeding out while paramedics reassure him he’ll be ok. His funeral marked with unruly children and a priest who has given up completely as well, and gives the desperate and grieving crowd “craving relief” the “bitter cup” that we’re all going to die. All over an almost relaxing and soothing music, lifting up, perhaps his most honest lyrics. Honest lyrics bound to fill any but the most comfortable in their own mortality with tension and sorrow. All and all, it might be the most Bazan-ish of all of David’s songs.
The song “Rejoice” is a short afterthought. As if you weren’t fulfilled, or sad enough, the sarcastic call for rejoice in the face of everything meaningful “turning to shit” lowers the coffin of the album. Bazan and crew promptly left the stage and, appropriately didn’t encore.
An interesting night to hear, what I easily consider, one of the best albums ever written, by someone heralded by many more trustworthy than myself, to be one of the greatest songwriters alive. I would also argue he’s one of the most intriguing performers alive as well. His brutally honest approach to songwriting spills over into his performances and his down to earth interaction with his fans as well. The most satisfying show of the year for me so far.