Fire Note Says: It is the nature of the “Phoenix,” to rise up, lift off, and take flight – that is what David Bazan accomplishes on the return of Pedro the Lion.
Album Review: It’s always a curious thing when an artist who is the dominant artistic driver in their band—singer, principal songwriter—feels the need to step away to make a solo project. You get it, of course, when the band in question is a cooperative, equally contributing musically to the whole, why someone might choose to step away and shape a more personal artistic statement. But when Jeff Tweedy needs to step back from Wilco, when he’s notoriously possessive of the band’s music and direction, you anticipate an all the more intimate expression. Similarly, anybody who knew anything about Pedro the Lion, knew that David Bazan was the heart and soul of the band, often playing most if not all of the instruments when recording, although he was joined by TW Walsh on Achilles Heel (2004), the band’s fourth album. So it’s all the more curious that Bazan, 15 years after the last Pedro the Lion album and with 5 albums worth of material under his own moniker, has decided to go back and try Pedro the Lion on for size. Perhaps, he rediscovered his love of the rock band format in 2017 when he reconnected the Walsh along with Jason Martin and Trey Many (both from Starflyer 59) to record an album as the band Lo Tom (2017).
Whatever the inner psychology motivated the return to where he began, Bazan spent a major chunk of 2018 touring with Erik Walters on guitar and Sean Lane on drums, as Pedro the Lion, playing material from the band’s four albums, released originally between 1998 and 2004. This new album of fresh material is a natural outgrowth of that return to his original process, working in a studio with guitar, bass and drums. In a recent bio, Bazan describes his return to that environment this way: “It immediately felt like home. Before long I realized it also felt like Pedro the Lion.”
There’s a long established realization that “you can’t go home again,” as attested by the Thomas Wolfe novel of that name, which is often turned into paradox by songwriters like Bruce Springsteen in his recent Broadway show, and a host of other musicians and artists who mine their childhood for those universal experiences that provide the connective tissue between artist and listener. Here on Phoenix, Bazan returns to visit the place he grew up the suburbs of Arizona’s desert city. The core creative spark in these new songs, and the things that bind them together come from Bazan’s reflection on that childhood home, and the way it shaped him and continues to impact his perceptions and experiences even in his 40’s. In his song, “Quietest Friend,” where he acknowledges his betrayal of a friend, he resolves that “We could write me some reminders/I’d memorize them/I could sing them to myself/And whoever’s listening/I could put them on a record/About my hometown/Sitting here with pen and paper/I’m listening now.”
And so are we. One of the things that makes Phoenix so immediately listenable, is that Bazan may be returning to the medium that fueled his early work as Pedro the Lion, but he brings to it all the insight and musical sophistication of an artist who has been at his craft for over 20 years. Musically, Bazan brings a larger appreciation for musical dynamics, a stronger sense of melody and a more expansive musical palette, making this the strongest outing yet for Pedro the Lion. On “Clean Up,” he’s actually written a rocker with a chorus framed by a strong pop hook, and the album as a whole rings out with crunchy guitars and an engaging sing-along anthemic quality.
But thankfully, Bazan’s introspective lyrics continue to plumb familiar emotional depths, this time with an acute attention to his childhood in that dusty, warm suburban landscape, where he rode his “Yellow Bike” to the “Circle K,” where he spent all the money he had hoped to save for a good skateboard. And at the heart of the album is the portrait of the young boy we first met on the Pedro the Lion debut, “It’s Hard to Find a Friend.” The boy is still lonely, in “Yellow Bike,” he compares his early solo rides around the neighborhood to his current career as a traveling musician riding alone from gig to gig, nicking a line from Shakespeare: “My kingdom for someone to ride with.”
While Bazan has often written of the stifling impact of his religious up-bringing, here he’s more forgiving. In the brief “Piano Bench” he recalls Sunday evening family time, “Mother singing, swaying/Dad piano playing/His gentle nature soothed me/The ache in her voice moved me.” “Powerful Taboo” explores the challenge of living up to standards that insist on denying one’s body pleasure and connection, while “Model Homes” explores the longing for supportive and loving relationships: “I wanna live with someone else/Give them my whole self/I wanna not be lonely.”
While the front end of the album explores those inner feelings and emotions as Bazan remembers his childhood longings, the camera pulls back to a bigger, but no less existential portrait. In “Tracing the Grid,” Bazan compares driving through the old neighborhood in a rental car, seeing extended family who tell the familiar stories that often frame our own self understanding, while “Black Canyon” tells of an uncle’s story about being called to clean up the bloody aftermath of a man who stepped in front of a semi on the highway. The final trio of songs – “My Phoenix,” “All Seeing Eye” and “Leaving the Valley” – wrestle with the love/hate tension that comes from deep reflection on all the went right and all that went wrong, and the geography that shapes how we remember, and what finally we have learned from the past. “How will you stop a rolling stone?” Bazan asks “Before you’re finally home, finally done running.” Again and again, artists, writers, psychologists and philosophers return to this time honored territory, and Bazan brings his own world weary voice to the questions of life’s meaning and purpose, and the result is art that connects and strangely enough is uplifting as it honors the deep human yearning for understanding.
And it doesn’t hurt at all, that Bazan, supported by Walters and Lane, bring a rocker’s aggression and creative energy to the subject. The music provides the muscular structure needed to carry these heavier ruminations without them weighing one down. In fact, the compelling musicality of Bazan’s melodies, spark a grounded intensity that is downright infectious in the interplay of the bold guitars, and solid backbeat of bass and drums. Which points to the other meaning in the title, it is the nature of the “Phoenix,” to rise up, lift off, and take flight, and thankfully Bazan brings that potent drive to this long awaited return to Pedro the Lion.
Key Tracks: “Clean Up” / “Yellow Bike” / “Circle K”
Artists With Similar Fire: Death Cab For Cutie / Damien Jurado / Lo Tom
Pedro The Lion Website
Pedro The Lion Facebook
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb