David Bazan’s range is limited; his voice is raw and rough. His particular style of guitar-playing consists of chugging out bursts of one chord—pausing—and then moving on to the next, a locomotive train pulling in and out of a quick succession of stations.
It’s a steam-engine comparison worth making since his latest effort, Strange Negotiations, fashions itself after the legend Bazan sings about on “Eating Paper,” a rollicking song that is one of the many highlights on the album—“John Henry dies in a tunnel/Hammer in his hand/Steam drill lives on/To make fools of every man.”
Like John Henry, Strange Negotiations is workman-like. It’s a grind from start to finish, but an enjoyable one at that; the hard work paying off one riff and biting line at a time, ripping the studio polish away until the tracks lay bare.
And to Bazan, the former songwriter behind indie sensation Pedro the Lion, we may all be fools, but that just means he has more to write about. Bazan holds an unflinching mirror up to those he chooses to portray—there is the “god damn fool” Bazan loves anyways on “Wolves At The Door”, where each lyric and each note comes soaked in strong sense of bitterness: “Surprise, they took your money and ate your kids/And they had their way with your wife a little bit/While you wept on the porch/With your head in your hands/Cursing your taxes and the government.”
Not everything on Strange Negotiations is a blistering attack though. At times, Bazan’s raw voice yearns to be sensitive. The album’s title track could sonically belong to Neil Young with its acoustic guitar and the foreboding bass anchoring each chord change with two quick hits. There, Bazan finds another type of fool to catalogue: “You cut your leg off to save a buck or two/Because you never consider the cost.” But when the chorus comes—“Strange negotiations/Man, they are really getting me down/Strange negotiations/Feel like a stranger in my home town”—his voice is understanding and forgiving, a sentiment that fills the end of the album, even when the characters are just as unsavory as before.
On “Don’t Change”, the pounding drums of Strange Negotiations relent, letting the listener come up for air, but its subject matter is still dark—an alcoholic stuck deep in his ways, a man first introduced in third-person, but one, by the second verse, Bazan assumes the persona of: “And when I wake up in the morning/I tell myself, ‘Today I’ll make a change/But falling into my bed at night/I think, ‘Man, it was a beautiful day to stay the same.’”
With that, Bazan proves he can hold his unflinching mirror up to himself, the final fool of all. “And I humbly acknowledge that I won’t always get my way/But darling, Death will have to pry my fingers loose,” he sings on the album closer, “Won’t Let Go,” a poignant song about love surviving long distance. He, like the rest of characters in Strange Negotiations, is capable of redemption and holding onto hope. Everyone, fool or otherwise, gets one more shot.