When David Bazan put Pedro the Lion in the rearview mirror and went truly solo in 2006, he explained his decision in song: “Fewer moving part means fewer broken pieces.” With that in mind, the masterful singer-songwriter crafted a series of terrific records: Fewer Moving Parts, Curse Your Branches, and Strange Negotiations. But even a well oiled machine needs to swap in some new replacement parts every now and again to keep things moving forward. On his new record Blanco, Bazan adds the cog of electronic sound in order to explore new sonic territory without discarding his intelligent and melancholy songwriting foundation.
Blanco sprung forth from Bazan Monthly, a project where the Seattle songwriter penned two new songs every month over the course of ten months. The project was released via 7” inch vinyl and digital downloads, but didn’t reach Bazan’s full audience. Instead of just letting the songs linger in relative obscurity, he compiled 10 of his favorite tracks to be the next LP. Hence Blanco was born.
Blanco’s tone becomes crystal clear from the opening notes on “Both Hands.” The first noise that greets the listener is synthetic gargle that sounds like someone’s trying to strangle an old computer trying to log onto the internet via a dial-up modem. The notes quickly morph to a piercing and foreboding pulse that overwhelms a glimmering synth layer underneath. It feels like a sinister spirit setting in over a shimmering lake in an art house horror movie (as certain personal relationship horrors keep a fearful Bazan from watching what's transpiring, instead hiding with “both hands over my eyes”).
This isn’t Bazan’s first foray into the electronic realm, having previously put out a record with the electronic indie rock side project Headphones in 2005. And it’s not like he completely abandons the guitar; tracks like “Kept Secrets” and “Little Landslide” center on strummed chords with the electronics adding ornate details. But on the whole, Blanco finds Bazan in a place where he knows how to use electronic instrumentation in a much more refined way. There’s no wasted motion in the way that he employs the electronic palette on songs like “Over Again” and “Trouble With Boys.” There’s no showiness or flair to the endeavor. This isn’t Bazan just playing with new toys, everything put in place benefits the mood of the songwriting in an almost workmanlike fashion. In the same vein, the album further displays his knack for beat crafting. It turns out it doesn’t matter if he’s behind a drum kit or using a drum machine for beatmaking on “Teardrops,” the man completely grasps the rhythms that compliment his lyrical storytelling.
Those stories told through song remain as downtrodden as ever on Blanco. It wouldn’t be a Bazan record if it wasn’t a beautifully crafted bummer. His battered worldview tends to resemble that of the pummeled fighter who just won’t stay down. In addition to emotionally taxing reflections on relationships throughout Blanco, Bazan gets lyrically meta about his life as a songwriter on “Oblivion.” He faces the endless toil of a musical life on the road (“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”) and delusions of grandeur (“Did you sing it like it is cause you’d really thought it’d pack ’em in? / Cause your kids are growing up and you still don’t make enough).
“With You” might be as close to a love song as Bazan will ever write, and it’s bleak. For goodness sake, the opening line is “I might have found someone who could love me, I might have found someone true / But I turn around, my life’s half over, and I’m with you.” But somehow through the self-loathing and paranoia, he comes around somewhat by the last verse with “The power’s out in our first apartment. I’m on the couch worried that we’re through / But when the lights come on, I’m really under the covers, and I’m with you.” It might not be the perfect ode to true love (warning: do not play this at your wedding), but certainly captures an authentic sense of a certain acceptance of a relationship.
In lesser hands, Blanco's songs would seem oppressively somber, but there has always been something about the empathetic way Bazan can sing lines that humanizes the situation. It makes listeners feel like there might be the tiniest kernel of hope hidden in the darkness. We’ll probably never find it, but it’s there.