Catharsis and empathy in David Bazan’s “Dark Sacred Night”

bazan_darksacrednight1400_1024x1024At first glance, David Bazan might seem as unlikely an artist to release a Christmas album as Neil Diamond, not least of all because neither are Christian. Religion seems to have played a very small role—if at all—in Diamond’s career, whereas Christianity has been a central theme in Bazan’s discography from his Pedro the Lion days to his present solo work. But Bazan “broke up” with Christianity in 2009 when he released his album “Curse Your Branches.” Why a holiday album now?

Between 2002 and 2011 Bazan released annual 7″ records featuring two Christmas songs, Bazanified. I knew Bazan had positioned himself as a “prophetic” figure within Christianity—prophetic in the sense of offering a critique of Christian shortfalls from the inside. But when he released his version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” I realized he was dealing with more than discouragement due to fellow Christians falling short in their emulation of Jesus. He added his own final verse, and while it seems a bit heavy-handed when you read the dead words, hearing him sing it had a powerful effect on me:

And now my wife and children dream
Of gifts beneath the tree
While I place in the manger
Baby Jesus figurine
Sipping Christmas whiskey
Wondering if I still believe

Oh, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy

For the first time in my life I viscerally felt the pain of a grieving doubter. Bazan’s rendition didn’t make me doubt God more, but it blasted my long-held beliefs about people who lose their faith—why they do it (perhaps they just want to sin, maybe they don’t like to follow Christian values), and what they must feel like (they must feel falsely free, perhaps some sort of warped happiness and freedom). No. Some people who desperately want to believe find themselves unable to do it. Some people experience a tremendous sense of loss, grieving, as with a death. His plaintive inversion of “tidings of comfort and joy” haunts me still, reminding me of all the pain in the world that remains unaddressed. Singing along with Bazan offered me a vicarious and clarifying moment of empathy.*

My own faith in God remains intact, if changed in interesting ways, over the past decade. But one reason I’ve been able to digest Bazan’s post-Christian music is because it offers an ongoing sense of fellowship and love with people who no longer share my faith commitments. To be more clear, I think his music is only “post-Christian” in the sense that it doesn’t openly advocate belief in traditional Christian claims, but it’s still quite Christian in the way it engages with the faith tradition. I confess that his critiques went down more smooth for me when he still considered himself a believer. Moments of heavy-handedness aside, I still find myself enjoying the engagement.

So “Dark Sacred Night” (a phrase from Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”) isn’t a cynical cash-grab, and it’s not an announcement of Bazan’s desire to return to the fold. For former Christians, the album performs a cathartic rescue of a few cherished holiday songs. And it offers Christians (in our case, Mormons in particular**) an opportunity to reflect on our shortcoming, as well as the differences and doubts within the fold, and I hope therefore to prod us to greater understanding, empathy, and love.

* * *

“Dark Sacred Night” is now available from Undertow Records.

*You can see a really poor recording of the actual Salt Lake City show where I saw Bazan sing his rendition in 2007 here.

**Speaking of Mormons, his cover of Low’s “Long Way Around the Sea,” relating a tale of the wise men being warned by an angel to avoid King Herod, is better than the original, in my opinion, and one of my favorite Christmas songs. And yes, David Bazan may be the only musician who could, without irony, make “Jingle Bells” sound depressing.

Comments

  1. A spot-on review of David Bazan’s work–music that has been an essential balm for me over the last several years of faith-stretching. I’d encourage readers to check out Curse Your Branches as a primer to this Christmas collection–the former is as much about searching/longing for a missing Christ as the latter.
    Bazan’s witnessing about his relationship to evangelical Christianity on his records and on numerous podcast interviews has been instructive for me as a reminder that Mormons aren’t the only ones who feel sharp paradoxes and tensions between the potentials of an abundant Christian life (John 10:10) and the limits of institutionalized orthodoxy.
    Bazan is, in my eyes and ears, very much a prophet (as the author mentions) of this kind of hypocrisy.
    He’s on a tour supporting this record and, last I checked, there were still some tickets available for his SLC stop. Join me!
    http://www.davidbazan.com/shows/

  2. ” If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”

    I thank God that David Bazan has played a part in my life!

    David Bazan is one of the most “beautifully flawed” people I have ever met. I mean that in the sense that he makes no pretense of maintaining appearances, or conducting separate private & public lives. He wears his heart on his sleeve and opens himself up through his music in a fearless & beautiful way. He gives words to the struggles that many of us have, yet we cannot admit because of our own hangups & social conditioning. I consider myself lucky to have ever crossed paths with him. He humbly & genuinely embodies the human struggle through his personality & music like nobody I have ever met. .

    I was introduced to his music back when the Control album came out. I’ve been a huge fan ever since. His songs come from a deeply-felt & well-thought-out headspace. They hold up musically over the years, but they continue to speak to me throughout the many phases of life I’ve been through over the past 15 years.

    I saw him perform 4 or 5 times between ’03-’06 when I lived in Washington. I even ran into him once at a local restaurant while out to dinner one night. He has always been the most gracious & genuine PERSON. He’s not a smug or mysterious celebrity who avoids interacting with his fans. He was always a really cool down-to-earth guy every time I met him.

  3. Bazan is maybe my favorite songwriter of all time. My feeling has been that his post-2009 work is only slightly different from his pre-2009 “Christian” work. With the older songs, he was a doubting Christian, talking about his faith/lack thereof and questioning what’s really true. In 2009, he stepped over the line, but tackled the same topics — specifically, what is it that he really believes. He still seems like a doubter to me. Only now he doubts (at least sometimes) whether quitting was the right call.

    It all works in such an amazing way – he captures what so many of us feel who struggle with religion and modernity.

    Among his so many amazing lines, some of my favorites are the “crew has killed the captain, but they still can hear his voice” lines from In Stitches (his ultimate “breaking up with God” song). This idea that a guy who is leaving the faith but still hears God’s voice as a “shadow on the water” or a “whisper in the wind” rings too true.

    Seriously, thanks for making me think of Bazan today. He’s the best ever.

  4. Thanks, you three.

  5. Thanks for this. A really thoughtful and beautiful review. David Bazan has long played part in my musical understanding of the world, but in particular, he was a really important figure for Carl throughout his life. Especially after his parents had gone through a divorce and his whole family, except him had left the church when he was a teenager. The music for him, although so sad at times, has also carried a thread of hope and humanity in its honesty. Excited to hear this album in its entirety.

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