Pedro The Lion rises again
Artist: Pedro the Lion
Label: Polyvinyl ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Tracing the trajectory of David Bazan’s strange and difficult path has been a fascinating and occasionally frustrating endeavor.
In Pedro the Lion, he metamorphosed from his nascent days as a Christian heart-on-sleeve songwriter into an agnostic, deeply acerbic sociopolitical critic, crafting expository sketches of characters rife with hypocrisies. Be it the priest who renounced his religion while suffering a crisis of faith during the deliverance of a eulogy on Control’s “Priests and Paramedics,” or the hiker who couldn’t bear to sever his own leg in order to save his life on Achilles Heels’ standout “Transcontinental,” Bazan held up deeply flawed individuals facing extreme situations for examination in a decidedly compassionate and non-judgmental manner.
Bazan rather abruptly ended the band in 2006, quickly releasing the Fewer Moving Parts EP thereafter under his own name as what felt at times like a mea culpa, particularly on “Fewer Broken Pieces.” It was a succinct yet devastating account of his band’s breakup, as he boasted with hyperbolic hubris, “Should I really reconsider my reasons for going solo?/David Byrne on Bob Costas put it pretty well/But I put it better/I still run the show/And don’t you forget it.” This was light years from the mild mannered slowcore acolyte who’d meekly and unassumingly titled his band’s first LP It’s Hard to Find a Friend. Bazan had found a formidable swagger, and he spent over a decade using it, releasing four proper LPs alongside sundry singles and EPs, a live album, a few collaborative records, and even a damn good Christmas album that few seemed to notice, 2016’s brooding Dark Sacred Night.
Now, Pedro the Lion has been resurrected with the release of Phoenix. It’s a double entendre of sorts, given the obvious mythical rebirth connotation of the title, and the fact that the album was inspired by Bazan’s visit to his grandparents’ house in his original hometown of Phoenix, AZ, where he’d lived until he was 12. It set off a fireworks display of flashbulb memories and unresolved quandaries, addressed with disarming self-awareness and vulnerability throughout these adroitly sequenced thirteen songs.
“Sunrise” opens Phoenix as a purely instrumental palette cleanser, as if to rid the listener of any baggage concerning Bazan and Pedro the Lion, a fulsome wash of synths rolling over crackling static. It segues into “Yellow Bike,” a parable-like childhood recollection that draws a straight line to his future life as a touring musician, concluding with the plaintive yearn, “I’d trade my kingdom for someone to ride with.” Is this an acknowledgement of his loneliness while working solo? Only Bazan knows for sure, but Phoenix finds Pedro the Lion sounding like a well-oiled band throughout all its peaks and valleys. Its get-in-the-van, road wizened bursts and blooms dazzle, courtesy of Erik Walters’ slashing guitar figures and Sean Lane’s supple drumming, which operate in intuitive concert with Bazan’s martial bass lines and bleating baritone vocals. All of these locomotive parts are integral to the album’s grizzled, homespun sound.
“Piano Bench” is an aberration on Phoenix, a diaphanous vignette accompanied by sparse keyboard swells and brittle guitar strums, as Bazan tremulously croons, “Mother singing, swaying/Dad piano playing/His gentle nature soothed me/The ache in her voice moves me.” It’s also one of the best songs on the album, exquisitely tasteful in its brevity and austerity, while cutting to the bone marrow with lacerating emotional clarity.
Allusions to Faustian bargains recur on Phoenix, first on Bazan’s confession that he “Took the devil’s bargain, made a stranger of myself/if anything was wrong I couldn’t tell” during the stunning “Quietest Friend,” and again on the album’s closer “Leaving the Valley,” as he dejectedly intones, “The devil beats his wife again/As the monsoon clouds start rolling in.” The former seemingly alludes to the guilt and contrition Bazan’s felt since breaking up Pedro the Lion, while the latter’s portentous didactics reference the secondary title of “Cold Beer and Cigarettes” (“The Devil is Beating His Wife”) from the Fewer Moving Parts EP.
“Leaving the Valley,” after a serpentine weave of tangled guitars and a queasy, seasick tempo shift, nods lyrically to “Hard to Be,” from Bazan’s first proper solo LP, Curse Your Branches, with the lyric, “If I swung my tassel from the left side of my cap/After graduation, will there be no going back?”. It’s phrased as a question here guilelessly, in diametric opposition to “Hard to Be,” on which Bazan authoritatively proclaimed, “I swung my tassel to the left side of my cap/Knowing after graduation there would be no going back.” Now, Bazan isn’t sure, about anything really, whether it’s religion, politics, interpersonal relationships, or band dynamics. These conundrums are articulated with wide-eyed wonderment on the first chapter of Pedro the Lion’s return. It’s a spectacular achievement, easily commensurate in quality, if not superior, to the band’s superb initial run of albums. And even more remarkably, Phoenix auspiciously suggests that myriad artistic avenues have opened up for Pedro the Lion on what’s hopefully only the beginning of their adventurous second act.