Caleb Cordes is a songwriter, musician, and writer-on-occasion living in Nashville, TN. He is the sole member of the project Sinai Vessel and yet insistently calls that project a band. Sinai Vessel self-released their third LP, Ground Aswim, in October 2020.
Like most of those who follow his work, I was first introduced to David Bazan via his prior project Pedro the Lion. More specifically, however, I was introduced to Pedro the Lion by a direct reference to the band in the “about” section on the website of nonprofit-turned-clothier To Write Love On Her Arms. I’d turned there for answers after growing frustrated with the absolute ubiquity of TWLOHA merchandise in my surroundings — I was mystified as to the meanings of their screenprinted slogans and even more as to why their wearers didn’t seem to fully understand them either. No one I’d asked seemed to know.
In a way, there could be no better picture of the Southeastern American evangelical Christian culture I’d grown up in. Like the WWJD bracelets, promise rings, and pro-life duct tape before them, they’d become cultural identifiers unto themselves, mostly shorn of their original intentions and serving only to alert followers to one another’s presence. When Strange Negotiations was released in the spring of 2011, I was a teenaged worship leader in a small North Carolina town, as much of a constituent of that culture as any of my peers. I was self-aware enough to poke fun at the strangeness of its artifacts, but not yet a keen enough observer to see the underlying pathologies they revealed.
These pathologies — the human tendency to outwardly believe in one way and act in another, to idealize community and pursue it in a way that seeks to usurp power, to silence one’s own questions in fear of being ostracized — are the very ones David Bazan has spent a career examining in song. His unflinching appraisals of our relationships to political systems, expressions of faith, commitments to one another, and our own internal worlds have long turned up tender and deeply complex results, portraits of a humanity pierced with light and hiding its deeds in darkness.
Strange Negotiations is a record about small compromises. Funnily enough, it arrived in my life in the form of one such compromise, though unwitting — it was a birthday present to me from a devoutly Christian girlfriend, who in horror had previously condemned the sexually explicit content on Pedro the Lion’s Control as “pornography” and yet failed to notice that CD cover she’d gifted me featured a pair of bare human butt cheeks. However innocuous, many of the characters make mistakes across Strange Negotiations in much the same way, trading themselves in at a pace glacial enough to miss with results that later grow impossible to ignore. Whether by believing the platforms of politicians as advertised (“Wolves At The Door”), cutting a quick ethical corner to save cash (“Strange Negotiations”), or simply defaulting on our promises to ourselves to improve (“Don’t Change”), Bazan’s characters slowly make strangers of themselves — “People seem so confused when they take home what they earn,” he sings.
Having spent his first two solo outings painfully extracting his own identity from his former career moniker (2006’s Fewer Moving Parts) and then from his Christian belief (2009’s Curse Your Branches), Bazan’s earned capacity for complicated characters on Strange Negotiations was at a career high. His gaze across the record is typically directed outward, most often at figures practicing the political and ideological conservatism of the Christianity he’d just left. Whether these figures haunt Bazan in the form of flesh or principality, his close striking distance of his subjects makes for blows thrown with a powerful empathy — “You’re a goddamn fool, but I love you,” goes the unforgettably arresting chorus on the album’s opener. There are multiple instances where one gets the impression that Bazan’s witness of familiar and familial enemies are tellingly informed by prior versions of himself, as is the case with the image in “Level With Yourself” of a man in morning-time devotion to “selling himself a revelation” he no longer believes.
Indeed, much of the wildly disarming poignancy of Bazan’s portrayals of inner conflict stems from his signature penchant for suddenly turning his criticisms inward. In “People,” Bazan places in frame a role model whose example was key to the development of his own ethos: “Because you were people-helping-people in your prime/I thought that people-loving-people were the norm.” His mentor’s story then quickly turns sour, the narrative of the verses that follow all too prescient in the present age of losing family members to Trumpian hysteria. On a dime, however, Bazan and band mute their raucous picture of decay to ask the following:
I wanna know who are these people
Blaming their sins on the fall
Who are these people?
If I’m honest with myself at all
These are my people
Man, what else can I say?
You are my people
And we’re the same in so many ways
As someone that was easily among the “people” to whom Bazan was speaking, these lines often elicited a wave of gooseflesh — though at the time I couldn’t have told you why. Despite their power, I remember many of the exchanges on this record still feeling like overheard conversations a room or two away — they were touching on a nerve I hadn’t mapped a pathway to. I’d not yet been afforded the distance to look back on where and how I’d grown up, a process for which these songs would eventually become a vital and enduring guide. But being that they weren’t quite yet that resource, it was just as easy (thankfully!) for the sound of the music itself to be what impacted me.
Strange Negotiations was the first release in Bazan’s oeuvre that I got to experience as a “new record.” I’d first heard and subsequently became obsessed with Pedro the Lion’s Control only a year or two prior, which meant that his collection from that record on to 2011 became my foremost image of quintessential Bazan. It’s also why Strange Negotiations immediately hit so hard; Control is likely the record’s closest sonic precedent. It’s pared down in a way Bazan’s solo career had thus far explored blossoming beyond. It returns with renewed vigor to his spin on the power trio formula that dominated Pedro the Lion’s output — which is why it didn’t surprise me to hear him recognize it as “sounding like a Pedro record” in press ahead of that band’s reunion. The thing is a god-damn bible for economy in rock music arrangements, and is full of some of the most precise and hard-hitting compositions of Bazan’s entire career. It’s been a constant conscious yardstick for many of my own songs, and doubtless an equally present subconscious influence.
But no track on the album has made more of a lasting impression on me as a person than “Virginia.” Being that Strange Negotiations was released in the final weeks of my senior year of high school, the song’s references to skipping class and graduation — in addition to the record on the whole already being littered with native references I understood — made this song feel as if it was impossibly addressing me as its sole audience. It’s also a stark outlier on the record in its sunlit, gentle timbre, but even more so in that it features a central character whom the narrator actually admires. On a record full of often scathing criticisms, Bazan sings here in stunned eulogy of a departed friend:
We were worried about your personal salvation
Was it heaven or hell that you saw when your eyes closed?
You smiled at us, floating high above the question
Like you knew something we didn’t know
At that age, I’d never met someone like Virginia. As someone who’d trusted their elders, who could presume to know better than discerning adults? I was in wondrous loss as to what it could mean to “float high above a question,” especially when I only understood reality as the binary of what I’d known the answer to be and the cold nothingness of denying it. Virginia helped point the way to a lifetime of in-betweens — and Bazan is one of a few treasured teachers that have taught me that the in-between is life’s entire field of play.
While Strange Negotiations spends most of its runtime on characters negotiating those in-betweens poorly, Bazan ends the record with “Won’t Let Go” — a declaration of love that does not dismiss with a world of uncertainty, but includes it: “Who or what controls the fates of men, I cannot say/But I keep arriving safely home to you.” Much in the same way David the Psalmist would use “yet” or “even so,” Bazan uses “but,” concluding with a refrain of “I will not let go.” It’s good to know that’s possible in all these strange negotiations.