David Bazan – Curse Your Branches (2009)

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by Tom Johnson

I have two amazing young daughters who constantly remind me of the distance in age between them and me. The youngest is too young to ask much, but is plenty busy with toys and books, and being the family comedian. My older daughter, however, she is full of questions and I, while not necessarily full of answers, have seen enough of the world to have a feeling or two about how things go most of the time. The answers seem to satisfy her, from what I can tell, at least. And the rest of the time, when I don’t know, I try to make up something entertaining that clearly makes no sense, and then wait to see how long it takes for her to complain.

Kids make you reassess everything. You know, before they came along, you had all the answers to your perfect little world. It was practically self-contained. You and your significant other, you orbited each other in perfect balance. Once you’ve got a kid in your life, it tosses away any semblance of that balance, challenging what you care about and how you approach everything outside of your family. Because everything matters and nothing matters. You suddenly have to start looking at things from their perspective, if only to see what is going to be a danger to your favorite tiny people, if not just to understand what they’re talking about half the time. In doing so, I’ve found that it’s humbling to look at how hopefully young kids view the world and how wearily I generally tend to see the world. Sometimes you feel a little unnecessarily worn down. If they are so hopeful, how can I feel so tired? I don’t think I want to.

Our oldest daughter is about to turn five and is overstuffed with questions, like most kids her age. They pop out of her at random times as if new ones being created in her head are shoving out the older ones. Some I can answer – why the sky’s blue, why rainbows look the way they do. Others leave me stumped, not because I can’t answer but because I don’t know what I should say. Questions about God, Jesus, religion. Some things I just don’t know that I feel right saying anything about. My answers, well, they might just be more questions.

I am not a religious man. The most of the Bible I’ve ever read was the part of Revelations that the opening of Iron Maiden’s “Number Of The Beast” used (which everyone thinks is voiced by Vincent Price. It’s not. Don’t worry, I thought that too.) I don’t have any real answers for her here. There’s no specific reason. I never had a falling out with the church or anything like that. It just never sat right with me. A five year old probably wouldn’t understand that.

A couple of years back, Charlie, my parents’ dog, died. He was a beloved companion to my daughter, and the situation raised questions about how to handle it. “He was sick and went away to be with his his mommy and daddy” is how we chose to handle it, but that was greeted with questions of when he would come back. It seemed that, night after night, at bed time, she’d pipe up with a new question about Charlie’s status, and it would result in a sniffling response from mommy. The earnest lack of comprehension was so sweet and so sad.

I was about her age now when one of my grandpas died, and it didn’t register. I didn’t really know anything happened. I didn’t go to the funeral, which wasn’t any request I made. I stayed home with a family friend and instead we went to the grocery store. I often wonder what, if she has the ability to remember Charlie when she’s older, will stick in her memories. I hope it’s something better than going to the gross old Lucky supermarket.

It’s hard to make such a young child understand when someone you love isn’t coming back, and the concept of heaven didn’t register at all. Fluffy clouds and happiness all the time didn’t mean much – that was what she already offered him, so why would he need to go away? What could God mean to her? What could God mean to a three year old to make it okay that her favorite doggy was with him instead? I’m not sure I get that even now.

In David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches, I feel like I’ve found something really special. A kindred spirit, perhaps. Here is a man questioning everything, and getting lost along the way. A formerly religious man who formerly fronted a Christian indie band (Pedro The Lion,) he is digging through piles of questions, trying to understand how what he knows to be right in his own mind and his own life contradicts and conflicts with everything the church he used to follow told him was right. In the album’s closing song, “In Stitches,” his own daughter is looking to him for answers about God, or the tongue in cheek ambling of “Bless This Mess,” where he wearily points out how, as long as you shelter under God’s umbrella, you can assume to be forgiven anything.

But it’s opening “Hard To Be” where he makes his case most clearly, and perhaps most offensively to devout Christians. He systematically tears down the story of Adam and Eve to the point that it devolves into mere myth, and it’s hard to fault him:

Wait just a minute
You expect me to believe
that all this misbehaving
grew from one enchanted tree
And helpless to fight it
we should all be satisfied
with the magical explanation
for why the living die

He then delves into a list of other things explained away by the punishment from Original Sin: why childbirth is painful, why growing food is difficult, etc. It’s a beautiful, moving portrait of a man coming to grips with his new reality and how it changes his life in some dramatic and sometimes unfortunate ways. It’s a mood that pervades not just this song but the whole. It may be dark and gloomy but most of all it’s intimate like few others albums today are. Bazan has dared step away from his church and, in doing so, his family, and in the process has bared himself to everyone with a heart-wrenching, unflinchingly honest set of songs.

I don’t have any answers after listening to Curse Your Branches. I wasn’t looking for them going in, however. What I feel is, if not relief, maybe sympathy that there’s someone else out there asking exactly the same questions, feeling exactly the same conflict, and facing the same crises.

None of that would mean much to my daughter. That hopeful nature she has, being so young, keeps her curious and keeps her asking, each answer spawning a new question. It’s an opportunity for me, I suppose, to look at everything again and try to understand where I’m coming from. If I can’t answer her questions in a way that’s satisfactory to her, maybe that means I can’t answer the same questions to myself. And we have another kid who will be preparing her own inevitable set of uncomfortable questions that demand answers in the coming couple of years.

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Johnson
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