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Pedro the Lion - Phoenix Music Album Reviews

Assuming his old handle for the first time in 15 years, David Bazan digs into his desert childhood to make amends with the people he hurt—especially himself.

David Bazan has a rich history of self-sabotage. As the last century slid into this one, Bazan’s recording project, Pedro the Lion, seemed of a piece with an indie rock tide drifting toward crossover success. Over songs that flirted with emo and slowcore and flitted between acoustic lamentation and electrified frustration, he asked hard questions of religion, love, industry, and economy, snarling in a burly monotone. Still, it was catchy enough to be a close cousin of several ascendant Pacific Northwestern peers, and, as George W. Bush entered the White House, Bazan’s concerns about Christianity’s place within supposedly progressive spheres were painfully relevant. Pedro the Lion felt forever on the verge of a real breakthrough.

Then, in 2005, Bazan scrapped Pedro the Lion to spend the next 14 years releasing records under his own name. Former bandmates rose to fame with the likes of Death Cab for Cutie, Fleet Foxes, and the Shins, but he pressed ahead alone, the sour traces of those early songs curdling into words that could feel like blame games. On Pedro the Lion’s presciently titled farewell, Achilles Heel, he lampooned the careerism of “bands with managers [who] are going places.” By and large, even as those solo records hinged on some of his sharpest writing, he wasn’t.

Bazan has finally taken up the Pedro the Lion handle again, drafting a new rhythm section to play parts he wrote for another rock trio record, Phoenix. The revival began when he spent the night at his grandparents’ home in Arizona during a particularly despondent stretch of solo touring along lonely desert roads. Realizing that, almost 30 years since leaving Phoenix, he still toted around unpacked baggage from that period of his childhood, he decided Pedro the Lion was the platform for addressing those hang-ups. He was right.

These 13 new songs at least scan like the old ones—a few distorted chords and some hard truths, barbed lines suspended between a baritone mumble and a broken tenor. But on Phoenix, Bazan turns the mirror on himself in ways he never has, scouring a childhood spent in the Sonoran desert for a real understanding of his deepest flaws and most fundamental beliefs.

“Quietest Friend” reflects on an important relationship he betrayed in a momentary bid for acceptance by his school’s coolest kids. He sings this very late confession through a scrim of shame, asking for an apology but understanding he may not deserve it. In perhaps the most empathetic song of his career, he at least wants to acknowledge his adolescent impulse, how it hurt someone else, and how he can get better from here. “We could write me some reminders/I’d memorize them,” he pleas in the climb to the coda. “I could put them on a record about my hometown/Sitting here with pen and paper/I’m listening now.”

From end to end, he exposes old memories to new light, turning them around and around to understand how they built or corroded his core. During “Black Canyon,” he considers a family fable about his paramedic uncle arriving at the scene of a gruesome suicide and the surreal episode that followed. In retrospect, it’s a testament to the fact that life can hurt, whether you’re trying to kill yourself by stepping into traffic or simply existing in a world that doesn’t welcome your type. You can imagine Bazan recalling the story and, decades later, swallowing his own problems, denying himself pity.

In “Circle K” and “Model Homes,” he considers the origins of a lifetime spent believing he’s never had enough, whether lamenting his parents’ haggard house or wasting his savings on the fleeting luxury of convenience-store candy. He first spots that restlessness—that sense of self-sabotage that saw him scrap a great band 15 years ago—the day he got a bike for Christmas and headed anywhere but home. Bazan even pins his perennial complications with Christianity on himself, at least in part. He allowed others to set the parameters for his ethics and enjoyment, he announces during “Powerful Taboo,” following instructions instead of his own instincts.

Bazan sings better than he ever has on Phoenix, his voice round and worn with intricacy from years of use, like a hiking stick toted in the same hand for a thousand miles. During “Tracing the Grid,” where he revisits his childhood haunts and highways, he leavens the memories with sweetness and warmth. When he recounts Sundays spent asking his parents go to the open houses of “Model Homes,” his voice cracks with the perfect echo of pubescence and curls with the desire of a hopeful plea. But, Bazan excepted, this is an entirely new version of Pedro the Lion, and the trio mostly steps on and off the accelerator of elemental indie rock, until these 44 minutes merge into an extended smear. Between Pedro the Lion albums, Bazan flirted with synths, drum machines, hypnotic drones, and acoustic drift. Rather than fold those excursions into this return, he steps back into a familiar pattern, looking over his shoulder musically just as he does lyrically.

Phoenix makes an easy mark for cynicism, supported by the idea that Bazan is either succumbing to nostalgia or cashing in as best he can as the world spins away from this brand of embittered, androgenic indie rock. But, much like Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film Lady Bird, these songs are a corrective to nostalgia, or of longing for a rose-colored history that never actually happened. In reckoning with who he was and who he has become, Bazan is squaring off with the past and asking hard questions of it and himself.

If that reads as sheer self-absorption in an era of terrifying international turmoil, fair enough. But after two decades of blaming God, capitalism, family, friends, and the hoi polloi for his vexation and bluster, Bazan now understands he must confront his own issues before he can help take on the world’s. Phoenix unfolds like an invitation for you to do the same. “Clean up, and we all might get there together,” he sings in a contagious chorus that transmutes domestic duties into a survivalist mantra for this harsh world. Sure, maybe that’s wishful thinking, but at least it’s a restart.

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