The Sisyphean Rhythm of “Strange Negotiations”

It Goes On, On and On: David Bazan’s Life on the Road and Religious Musings

Guest Contributor / 1.30.20

This review was written by Kurt Armstrong.

Let’s start at the end: David Bazan, the subject of Brandon Vedder’s film Strange Negotiations, loads guitars and amps into the back of his van, gets behind the wheel, and backs away from his house. Back on the road to play a new string of shows, leaving behind his wife and kids, the three other most important characters in the film, though we hardly see them. Then again, neither does Bazan. The film cuts to shots of driving to another city and loading and unloading gear, while one of Bazan’s songs stutters, chugs and growls in the background: “It goes on, on and on… Right here, I’ll be/ till I can no longer breathe/ It goes on, on and on.”

That’s basically the gist of Strange Negotiations, the road-movie/portrait of David Bazan, the well-loved and critically-acclaimed musician, touring relentlessly, plying his trade, trying to earn enough money to support his family: He drives across America, then does it again. And again. I’ve gone to a lot of rock shows in my life: loud, bright, glamorous, moving, and spectacular. But for the musician, touring and performing is a job, and like every job, sometimes — often — it’s bloody boring. The film captures the Sisyphean rhythm of life on the road: drive, eat, unload, set up, play the show, mingle with fans, hotel, FaceTime with the kids. Sleep. Wake. Repeat. It goes on, on and on.

Director Brandon Vedder doesn’t skip the boring bits, with dozens of shots of Bazan driving to the next show, and the film could have stalled out in tedium were Bazan not such a sympathetic character and Vedder such a masterful storyteller. The film begins much the way it ends, out on the road, with Bazan at the wheel, barreling down a rainy highway, tears streaming down his cheeks. Layered over the rhythm of the wipers and tires we hear one of his very best songs, “Impermanent Record,” a sparse, blistering rock anthem that juggles macho swagger, metaphysical wonder, and Old Testament imagery.

Bazan grew up in conservative evangelical circles, and while he no longer calls himself Christian, he still knows the religious material well. Vedder touches on the salient details of Bazan’s twenty-five-year music career in 90 minutes without making the film cramped or rushed. He sketches Bazan’s journey from indie-rock star and evangelical pastor’s son, to fierce, outspoken agnostic, a trajectory fraught with wounding, scarring side-effects — alcohol abuse, marital strife, shattered friendships, fragile mental health, and perpetual financial insecurity. If there’s a distinction between Bazan-as-performer and the man himself, he’s consistently blurring the boundary between one and the other. His music is deeply personal, and even more so as he ages. Bazan’s broad back catalogue lets Vedder pack the film with songs that help tell the story, with footage from early rock shows, house concerts, and in-store performances. It all paints a portrait of the tender-hearted father, vulnerable husband, heavy drinker and hard-working musician, an artist struggling mightily against pernicious voices of self-loathing and the haunting siren call of self-destruction.

Some of the songs are painful, walking a very fine line between honesty and self-indulgence. I don’t think he’s wallowing, and he’s certainly not out to make his audience miserable: we see Bazan standing around, visiting with his fans after house shows, and he’s sociable and engaging, endlessly gracious and patient. But the film shows him as an artist driven by relentless self-criticism and unflinching honesty. I’m a sucker for melancholy pop and rock, music to help me feel good about feeling bad: Death Cab, Mute Math, The National, Coldplay, etc. But Bazan’s music is something different, all those achingly personal songs about self-hatred, abusing booze, loneliness, loss of faith, fear and despair, and nary a feel-good anthem in the bunch. It’s emotionally demanding music, like the “fearless and searching moral inventory” of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The material is seriously heavy, but you can tell by the faces of people at the house shows that his songs really connect. Bazan’s music haunts the audience with all manner of scary monsters he’s found in the shadows of his own soul.

And then there’s David Bazan as a roaring prophet, with fierce, explosive songs about the poisonous, rotten fruit on the trees of consumerism, corporate greed, and blind nationalism. As we see him driving across the country, we hear snippets of radio news reports covering US politics. The contrast is powerful without being heavy-handed: Stunning drone footage from high over the landscape and roads suggest that Bazan has a perspective we ignore at our peril.

Throughout the film there’s the undercurrent of his ongoing relationship with Christianity. “I am participating in the larger Christian tradition. Definitely,” he says. “I’m a son of evangelical Christianity. I’ll never not be that.” Though he hasn’t identified as a Christian for a long time now, he still cares deeply about faith, which he mostly expresses through anger at thoughtless, self-absorbed piety. “Are you tired of talking about Christianity?” asks a fan at a house show. “Not at all,” he says. “Christianity is still creating so many problems around us. I’m dying to talk about it…I care about what happens to Christianity. I want to see it get better.”

I’ve been a Bazan fan for decades, and I have a long, complex, deep relationship with his work, as do most of his fans. It’s a risky thing to make a doc like this: indie rock fans can be notoriously protective of the artists they love. But Vedder has made a rich and satisfying film, a portrait of the artist as a vulnerable man, not an easy thing to do with someone of whom so many of us have strong feelings and a sense of ownership. Vedder does a fine job of showing Bazan’s many sides without making him a spokesman for a particular agenda. The film is not didactic, and Bazan comes off way too flawed for this to be hagiography. Vedder lets the ambiguity and uncertainty linger: There are Bazan fans who want him as their anti-evangelical leader, but he’s too thoughtfully engaged with Christianity to fit that mold. His songs are fiercely critical, but when he speaks, he’s gracious with people and the different ways they think.

So the film ends as it began, back out on the road, heading to a string of cross-country shows. But the interminable loop of touring belies some of the subtle changes that have emerged: he’s re-formed his band, Pedro the Lion, still performing some old songs, like “Slow and Steady Wins the Race,” but with a voice that’s so much deeper and richer than when he first sang it. His drinking is under control; his mental and emotional health are more stable. We see shots of him back home, on a quiet walk with his family, moments of peace.

“The little things we do that we don’t think matter, the evidence is all around us that…it matters,” he says. Having outgrown his childhood religion, and then rejecting a more fraught, complicated expression of belief, he’s wound up with a kind of tenuous, hard-won optimism, holding onto those little things. Even so, Christian faith remains an interlocutor: Bazan patiently bears the weighty mantle of the haunted atheist, a restless doubter who nevertheless can’t stop talking about God. Just before he leaves, we see him sitting outside watching the sunset. Then it’s hugs and kisses with his wife and kids, and back on the road. Bandmates in the van, a new string of shows, clubs full of devoted fans, a batch of new music, and fragile hope in what goes on and on.

Strange Negotiations is now available through iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and elsewhere. Featured image credit: COURTESY SXSW