David Bazan has lived many lives. Depending on the listener’s entry point, he can be an entirely different person. There’s the faithful doubter on the early Pedro The Lion records, struggling with his faith up until the band’s final record, 2004’s Achilles Heel. Then there’s his solo work, fraught with his newfound agnosticism. His one-off-project Headphones saw him burrowing into the sterile sounds of synthesizers, creating a hollow sound unlike most synthpop acts. He’s the dutiful guitar player and growling co-frontman in Overseas. Yet the one thing that’s stayed consistent between all of these is Bazan’s voice — once again the core to his latest solo record, Blanco.
His voice may have been softer in those early days, but it was weighted with existential loathing. Over the years, his voice has grown into his songwriting, developing into the ragged bellow he uses today. Each project has explored a new facet, and his voice ties them all together. He’s never been an artist for crowd-pleasers and spirited anthems; often in live performances he’ll make jokes about being such a downer. To hear his voice rumble deeper into the darkness has been a harrowing and cathartic experience. Blanco surprises by throwing this tattered voice over top synthesizer warbles and drum samples rather than brooding guitar — a cleaner, more lush take on the work he did in Headphones.
The problems Bazan deals with on his records have typically been massive. When he writes a breakup record, he’s breaking up with God. When he’s getting political, it’s a concept record like Control. On Blanco, however, Bazan pulls back the veil in a different way. It’d be incorrect to say that Bazan has ever held back his personal issues, but the way he presents his life on Blanco feels less on the grand scale of existential crisis and more akin to the burdens of being a husband, a songwriter, and a normal person. The songs previously appeared in his Bazan Monthly single series, squeaking out releases two songs at a time until he’d built up enough to pare down to the 11 tracks here. As such, this album very much chronicles the last two years of his life.
“Now is not the time for second thoughts,” he bellows on “Oblivion”. This line is surreal coming from Bazan. Much of his music has been founded on the entire concept of “second thoughts.” This is intentional, as the song sees Bazan reflecting on the man he’s been. On the second verse he sings, “But it’s no good to complain of fatigue and existential pain on a six-week solo drive while your friends work nine-to-five.” It’s about as meta as he’s ever gotten, finding a new way to open up to his audience. He’s been grappling with the weight of the world in his songs, but perspective shows a new sense of privilege that he even gets to explore those woes.
It’s not that his inner thoughts have shifted away from life’s big questions, but that they’ve taken a new place in his life. On opener “Both Hands”, he laments the thoughts that weigh on him, but setting them aside to deal with the issues right in front of him. Synth basses blurt in the background alongside a siren-like drone. He samples his own voice, echoing and distorting it in the background like a glitched Greek chorus. The bombast of the production fills the space with anxiety as Bazan tries to calm himself down and solve relationship troubles.
Bazan has always been a realist first and foremost. He’s very much like an indie rock Louis C.K., and not just because he wears a black shirt all the time. The two share a way of looking at the world that seems cynical, but emerges with beautiful insights that may have been missed by others. “With You” is second only to “Won’t Let Go” in his discography as the closest thing to a love song. Between the verses he looks at the things his partner lacks, then flips it around to note the things he himself lacks. It’d be a miserable romp if it weren’t for the bittersweet ending, realizing that through all the bad they still have each other.
This album’s aesthetics are a jarring change from his last few records, a new perspective on a well-known songwriter. The dreamy “Trouble With Boys” uses the keyboard arpeggios as a bright backdrop for his self-conscious character study, giving a beautiful credence to his ode: “You are worthy of love.” Later, “Someone Else’s Bet” reveals some of Bazan’s most gorgeous songwriting yet. He’s always had a knack for writing heart-aching choruses, but the way everything culminates here feels fluid and desperate. “I will not lay in bed with a wheel turning in my head,” he vows, “trying to figure out the spread on someone else’s bet.”
The wickedness of the world still isn’t lost on Bazan, but he’s dealing with it on a personal level now. Ditching the guitar not only gave him room to explore just how far out he can take his songwriting, but it symbolizes this shift in attitude. The world will continue to be a burden; for now Bazan has his own inner universe to think about.
Essential Tracks: “Both Hands”, “Oblivion”, and “Someone Else’s Bet”