Pedro the Lion came out of a tradition of slow, sensitive, lo-fi indie bands. Those early records feel hand-made, bass and guitar creeping quietly past one another, drums thumping softly off in the background. Songwriter David Bazan sings in a high, husky near-whisper, a slightly-less-bashful Elliott Smith trying to keep the tape from fuzzing. He plays almost every instrument, and the records often feel like one man in a small room, trying hard to put something together without bothering the neighbors.
Compatriots and tourmates Death Cab for Cutie turned his formula into viable arena rock, but, intentionally or not, Bazan always stayed small. There’s something fragile, even self-doubting about the band’s music, as if Bazan were afraid of being too forthcoming, or saying too much. Most of his songs take the form of fictionalized stories, and his biggest record, 2002’s Control, situates potentially polemical thoughts about religion, sex, and the music industry (he memorably describes radio-rock as “corporate cum”) within a narrative of adultery and revenge.
This is wonderfully open music. With so few moving parts, each instrument stands out in the mix, creating space for the listener — and perhaps for himself. They were the indie band on the emo label, and Bazan the sensitive Christian in the punk scene, the religious man who wrote movingly about both faith and hypocrisy. These contradictions run like a high tension wire through the band’s catalog, humming with the strain.
His most forthright declarations are matched by his most fragile instrumentation. His version of the traditional hymn “Be Thou My Vision” dissolves into a haze of organ hums and cymbal washes, as if failing before the honest, uncalculated declaration. Doubt is far more common — Bazan’s sense that he ought to feel something, but either doesn’t or can’t. Yet, as in “Secret of the Easy Yoke,” this is often twinned with a deep desire for pure belief. “I still want to trust you,” he begs, and I find his complicated failure, his straining towards something he cannot quite perceive, to be genuinely moving.
Perhaps the strain proved too much. Bazan broke-up the band after 2004’s Achilles Heel, and over the next 15 years recorded a few solo records of varying quality and diminishing success. He also became a fairly diffident non-believer, a decision perhaps inevitable in a time when the Evangelical Christianity in which Bazan was raised became most publicly linked with George W. Bush and the American invasion of Iraq. In his songs, God becomes a bully, an abuser holding damnation over the heads of his believers. Yet he couldn’t quite find his way out of it. “Because I grew up believing in hell and reckoning,” he told Jessica Hopper in a 2009 Chicago Reader article, “there is a voice in me that says, ‘That might not cut it with the man upstairs,’ but I think that that has to be enough.”
Is it ever? In 2016, while touring alone in a minivan, Bazan stopped overnight with his grandparents in his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. As the marketing copy would have it, this was both a low point, and a moment of realization. Driving around town, he thought about his own childhood, and everything he’d done since, and when he started to write about the experience, he realized that he had to get Pedro the Lion back together.
So he did. In 2019, the band put out Phoenix, the first new Pedro the Lion album in 15 years and Bazan’s best in longer. Recently, I marathoned the band’s albums, and I was startled by how changed Bazan sounds. His voice is deeper, his lyrics more patient and personal. His musical palette has also grown, incorporating synths and far more complex arrangements that allow communication between all the players, chugging bass swaying into floor tom on “Yellow Bike” while the guitar colors overtop. But rather than hide beneath the instruments, he places himself right out front, recounting formative experiences of freedom and humiliation from the first dozen or so years of his life. After the stripped-down chip-tunes of 2017’s Care, it was a pleasure to hear him rock again, matching emotion to the music’s tenor in a way he hadn’t in years.
In the notes for Havasu, the album he surprise-released last month, Bazan says that Phoenix represents the first in a five-album cycle, telling the story of a childhood on the move, as well as “how my family and parents and everyone I love got coopted by nationalistic, authoritarian religion.” This frame, of abstraction overriding intimacy, describes the project as a whole.
Havasu covers the year between ages 12 and 13 that Bazan and his family spent in the newly constructed suburb of Lake Havasu. It’s a quieter, slower album than Phoenix, preferring drum machines and acoustic guitars for these stories of teenaged heartbreak and burgeoning depression. One gets the sense of someone straining, again, to reach something just beyond his grasp, a person that he recognizes but who often remains at a great distance.
Like the suburb of its title, it arrives pre-fabricated, a place without much room for life.
These albums are at their best when Bazan finds a way to bridge that gap. “Yellow Bike” contrasts the early freedom of riding out on his own with that of the middle-aged man in a beaten-down van, driving the highways on his own. In “Quietest Friend,” he tells the quotidian story of abandoning a childhood acquaintance and throwing his lot in with the bullies. It isn’t a tragic story; nothing dramatic comes of it. But Bazan locates the bruised shame pulsing within the memory, and the recognition of their shared capacity for cruelty. It’s heartbreaking. And on Havasu highlight “First Drum Set,” he illustrates how learning to play a beat changed his life, and the revving, surging track more than proves the point.
Havasu could use more of that dynamism. Where Bazan’s patience once hovered over an abyss, like scaffolding arranged as the building is being constructed, now it feels pre-determined, click-tracked, a floor plan without much room for deviation. The middle of the album particularly plods along, Bazan taking his time moving from line to line, like a series of cliff-hangers that do not always surprise or satisfy.
A certain amount of this might arise from the banality of the material. This was not an exciting time in Bazan’s life, and songs like “Teenager Sequencer” and “Own Valentine” feel like what they are: a middle-aged man recalling a crush he had as a teenager. So much distance does not preclude immediacy. But only so much feeling can be finessed from a phrase like “indoor-outdoor roller skating rink.” There is a tedium here that Bazan cannot always elevate or explore. Like the suburb of its title, it arrives pre-fabricated, a place without much room for life.
Bazan also seems to be projecting back into his adolescence, searching for some explanation for the man he has now become. Sometimes Bazan speaks in the first person, and often addresses himself directly. On the finger-picked closer, he realizes that a childhood spent being carried from one city to another has fundamentally unsettled him, preparing himself “to stay in motion.” “Good Feeling” begins with a moving day and ends with him leaving a “secret self” at the bottom of the lake — a self he has finally, in writing this album, returned to retrieve.
Yet one wonders how well he sees that self. Phoenix addressed his religious upbringing on several songs, from the “Powerful Taboo” of music (and thus of sex) to the more serene Sunday-morning reverie of a service spent with his mother on the “Piano Bench.” Havasu does so only once. “Lost Wisdom” relates Bazan’s childhood fear that he had been left behind after the Rapture, a fantasy of punishment inextricable from his deep love for God. Present-day Bazan seems baffled by his younger self. “Despite your constant vigilance,” he sings, “you had angered the Lord / Which somehow made you love him even more.” In an earlier incarnation, Bazan wrestled with what he saw as the ineluctable burden of faith, something he had not taken up but could never put down.
Now he sees it all as an imposition, a necessary choice between belief and knowing himself. “I traded everything,” he bemoans, “for a peace with no peace.”
As Bazan tells it, he has made the right choice at long last. I certainly can’t say that he chose wrong. Yet the music he made when he was still in the thick of it often feels more insightful in its ambivalence. In the final minutes of Control, Bazan’s narrator finds himself wishing that he lived in a world without significance, in which every action were ultimately meaningless and his sins without consequence. Such a world, he remarks, would at least be easy to bear. But in this one, “everything is so meaningful / and most everything turns to shit,” an irresolvable state in which he has no choice but to live. The Bazan of 2022 would say that we do have a choice. But I’m not so sure. As he showed with Pedro the Lion, one can live in a contradiction for a very long time.
Robert Rubsam writes fiction and criticism.