Matt Francis is a filmmaker/media designer out of Virginia Beach and the drummer for Feral Conservatives, an indie rock band. You can check out his website at mfrancisfilm.com.

The problem with rules is, it alienates the criminals

You used to be able to discover all the bands you needed from the inserts on compact discs. A good CD insert contained pictures, lyrics and an extended “credits” section where you could see the artists’ level of spiritual dedication by how they thanked the individual members of the Trinity.

There was often a thank you to other bands, generally tour mates. This was the best way to learn about other worthwhile bands to check out within the taste range of the purchased CD in the dark age before Pandora radio and access to every song ever via Youtube.

Dark age, indeed.

So I have Bleach to thank for this one.

Pedro the Lion had already released an EP and a few albums. The reputation of the band — composed primarily of creative center David Bazaan — was of a spitfire, jagged-edged Christianity that called it liked it was, as seen on the 2002 release Control, with lyrics like, “If it isn’t penetration / then it isn’t worth the kiss.” This seemed especially daring at the time.

The album documents an affair and inevitable divorce while criticizing American capitalism (perhaps because he liked the alliteration of “corporate cum”).

However, as a sheltered Christian teenager in high school, owning an album with such parlance felt like concealing porn. I gave the album away to a friend. Pedro’s first effort, from ’97, Whole, is a six-song concept album in the grand tradition of folk story-telling. The first track describes the overall themes and setting, painting the broad strokes of a character kicking against “the rules,” blaming their constriction for imposing on “his way.” After all, “the problem with rules is / it alienates the criminals / and who’s to say that what they did was wrong that day.” (The rules! The rules say it’s wrong.)

The effort is a simplistic fable from an AA hymnbook: from addiction to redemption through the healing power of Christ. Second track “Fix” describes the recreational use of drugs and the feeling of empowerment and control over its usage. Things quickly take a turn into desperate addiction, leading to “Whole,” a plea to “Mr. Hole Fix-It Man” to fill his emptiness (and be his methadone), while “Lullaby” offers a gentle refrain from Christ himself: “Rest in me, little David / and dry all your tears / You can lay down your armor / You can have no fear.”

The music, spread across all six tracks, is straightforward and effortless. Each instrument has the complacency of a novice, with the welcoming, open arms of a community jam session — you don’t have to learn your part because you already know it. Combine the difficulty level with the saunter of mid-to-slow tempo, rather than even speed to give the impression of complicity, and the songs have a jug band appeal with focus on mood and story progress. Each musical turn is drafted from the same cloth, a rise and fall of the protagonist, without ever calling on outside elements of varied instrumentation. The darkest point is conveyed in stilted pace and minor chords — hope, through washy cymbals and a more driving mid-tempo beat.

David Bazaan publicly turned away from the Christian faith in 2010. In interviews from around that time, he described the fall as gradual, from indulging in intellectual examinations of God and faith under the assumption that the answers would plant him firmly back in the believing camp, rather than strip away his foundation. It was “deconversion,” as Christianity Today phrased it. I don’t purport to know the personal workings of the man’s faith, either through his lyrics before or his somewhat vague interview responses of recent. Still, my reaction was startled — he was a unique voice on the fringes of the CCM world, much like Derek Webb, where word choice was often scrutinized beyond their sometimes damning implications. It’s sad to me that, if we couldn’t sanitize their voices out of our own market, they could fall away on their own accord and leave things just a little too conventional and unchallenging.

A selfish but immediate response might be to look over his body of work with the hindsight of his recantations. Whole was an important record for me, and we react to art through various facets, the authors initial intended meaning being only one. But does sincerity only count in the moment, the initial feeling that led to the declaration, or does it have to be looked at in time, to see if it stayed the course? A snap shot of any relationship can feel doomed in hindsight, despite smiling faces and holding hands. There’s a bittersweet melancholy in knowing that failure is the outcome, even before the signs of wear and doubt have surfaced.

Whole works as a complete story because of the resolution song, “Lullaby.” The preceding songs keep a distant, fable-like quality to the songwriting. It’s more overarching than personal. A reference to a needle lends to specifics of the narcotic, but most of the story elements are at arm’s length. “Fix” takes on multiple meanings throughout the course of the narrative, from the drug high to the call for saving/mending. As obtuse as “broken” to describe a host of ills, so “fix” can apply to any number of generally applied repairs. All we know is that it worked, not how — problem solved. Mr. Hole Fix-It Man fixed it up right.

Not that we’re looking for a 12-step program, rehab or any long discourse on practical detox solutions. The magic, the True Fix, which we also understand to fill a spiritual deficiency, works because “Lullaby” turns the fabled story into a personal response to salvation, right down to Jesus addressing the author by name on the chorus. The song springs from someone who’s seen the dark end of the struggle, and the True Fix resonates as genuine. The story details are filled in, not with specificity, only with the emotions of a fall and redemption. It’s a modern Brothers Grimm, and when the orator pauses and the audience breaks its trance to scrutinize their gullibility, all the orator has to do is lift his own sleeve to reveal the track marks on his arm.

So is Bazaan’s admission, nearly 13 years later, an addendum to the tale on Whole?  Did Scorsese get a hold of the screenplay rights and offer the dark final third to inject some additional character layer to an all-too classically structured story? It’s never that simple. The story, like the music, bears a minimalism in its swift poetry, but human complexity is our gift and curse. Through the story we see the bookends, starting with the alienating rules and ending with the soul-repair work of the Fix-It Man.

The overarching through line, then, might come back to the introductory track. Where we fit on the narrative, on any given day, might be how we respond to this line: “I want to do it my way.” For me — my desires, original sin or, hell, even those pesky rules — it seems to be a fluxing process rather than a linear progress. Maybe the fix is about second, third and all our chances and re-chances. But that’s the problem with rules: They alienate me whenever I break them.