After 15 years of recording under his own name, Headphones, and as parts of various other bands, David Bazan has returned to his first musical moniker, Pedro the Lion, for Phoenix. The album instantly has the cornerstones of a Pedro record: electric guitars, autobiographical lyrics, an overarching theme, and emotional directness. While some of those elements followed Bazan through all his musical iterations, this particular combination seems particularly potent when using the Pedro name.
Joining Bazan in this iteration of Pedro the Lion are Perfume Genius associates Erik Walters (guitar) and Sean Lane (drums). This leaves Bazan on bass, the instrument he has described himself as least proficient on. That’s an interesting choice, though Bazan is a fine bass player. His basslines are simple and direct, but offer unexpected melodic flourishes throughout. He locks in really nicely with Lane, allowing Walters to weave his guitar in between the rhythm section with ease.
Phoenix is a concept album about Bazan’s childhood home of Phoenix, Arizona, as well as some of the issues and memories that the city drug up for him when he visited for the first extended period as an adult recently. There are stories on the the record, like “Yellow Bike” and “Circle K” that, even if you grew up in 7-Eleven country and rode a blue Huffy, will be easy to relate to. “Yellow Bike,” a sleeper inclusion on a cool kid’s Christmas mixes here on out, is about getting his first bicycle. Even if a bike wasn’t the big gift when you were a kid, we all had that gift that acted as a pathway to something else.
Bazan’s lyrics aren’t afraid to cut deep. “Quietest Friend” is a heartbreaking story of peer pressure, with Bazan making fun of a shy friend in order to fit in. Bazan tells the story plainly, without too much embellishment. Somehow, this makes the story even sadder and more real. He doesn’t make too many excuses, or tries to garner sympathy for any one character in the story. But the honesty with which it is delivered is stark and borderline uncomfortable.
The album has three pieces that act as interludes, where the instrumentation grows to include some keyboards and the pace slows down a bit, and they represent the weakest points on the album. The intention is solid, but ultimately they distract from some of the more fleshed out songs and disrupt the sonic palette of the record. Bazan has albums steeped in electronics that are exceptional (the self-titled Headphones record especially), but they don’t really work here, but clearly serve the theme of the concept record. Unfortunately, they are more important to the concept part than the record part, and so feel a little disjointed.
The album is a literal and figurative rebirth for the band – hence the perfection of the Phoenix title – and so the record works best when it is simple and streamlined. The songs without keyboards require the band to be really creative in their sonic diversity, whether it is Lane using the rims of his drums as an additional sonic element, or Walters adding an extra effect to his guitar to thicken out the sound. Subtle harmonies pop up too, especially in the back half of the record, where the intensity gets dialed up and Bazan’s voice, wearier and a little more ragged than we’ve heard lately, really becomes the star of the album. His voice is among the most distinct in music, clear as a bell but with a quiver and a growl in equal measure.
As Bazan is the sole constant in Pedro the Lion, it is easy to dismiss the ‘new Pedro the Lion record’ narrative that’s been put forth here. And even though, yes, Bazan is still very much in charge here, and likely had a lot more to do with the arrangements than Lane and Walters did, this feels different. The limited sonic scope, the narrative, and the intensity all scream Pedro the Lion. While the album is probably a couple of songs too long, and maybe a little too beholden to the concept, it is a strong return to form to begin, what is hopefully, a long and successful second act.
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Brian Salvatore lives in New Jersey, and is the senior editor of Multiversity Comics (www.multiversitycomics.com) and a writer/podcaster at Amazin' Avenue (www.amazinavenue.com). When not writing, he can be found playing music, hanging out with his kids, or playing music with his kids. He also has a dog named Lola, a rowboat, and once met Jimmy Carter. Feel free to email him about good beer, your Beatles hot takes, or the best way to make Chicken Parmagiana (add a thin slice of prosciutto under the cheese).