I was not familiar with David Bazan when two friends, Joe and Marcelo, stopped by for a beer and introduced me to his album Curse Your Branches. Joe told me Bazan’s music showed him, “it was okay to not only have doubts and explore them but also to talk about them publically.” Marcelo said, “I want my ‘entertainment’ to continually wake me up.”
The songs did wake me up. It was like no Christian—or former Christian?—music I had ever heard. I was not sure what to do with it.
Bazan’s former publicist Jessica Hopper talked to some kids after he had played a set at Cornerstone, and they didn’t know what to make of him either. She writes, “many of them [seemed] to be trying to spin the new songs, straining to categorize them as Christian so they [could] justify continuing to listen to them.” One kid told her Bazan was “singing about the perils of sin, ‘particularly sexual sin.’” Another reported that the songs were “a witness of addiction, the testimony of the stumbling man.”
Witness is an apt representation, but not the kind I grew up hearing about in my small Baptist church.
At the 2009 Festival of Faith and Music, Bazan said in an interview that he always felt a tug toward something authentic, the longing to get out of “that [Christian artist] ghetto.” Plenty has been written about the need for Christians to make higher quality art, but it is about much more than quality.
In his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera discusses the aesthetics of kitsch. Kundera’s short definition of kitsch is that it is an aesthetic ideal "in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist."
Kitsch is an ethical term as much as it is an aesthetic one. In an article in Salon Curtis White calls a book “intellectually shameful.” He explains: “To be intellectually shameful is to be dishonest, to tell less than you know, or ought to know, and to shape what you present in a way that misrepresents the real state of affairs.” Dishonest art is not just aesthetically bad; it is unethical, even shameful.
Curse Your Branches is not a breezy listen—it is emotionally demanding; there is real anguish. It is deeply ethical though. Bazan looks at the world without blinking and honestly relates what he sees there—even when it is ugly.
In his words, “that's what bearing witness is.”