While not an instant classic, Pedro the Lion’s new album, “Phoenix,” is still worth the listen.
After more than 15 years, David Bazan has returned to making music under the name Pedro the Lion with the new album “Phoenix.” I wish I liked it more. Bazan, who has put out music under several different monikers over the years, broke into the scene as Pedro the Lion in the mid ‘90s. While Pedro had others in the band, Bazan wrote and arranged a majority of the music. Pedro enjoyed some moderate success, particularly in Christian music circles. After four albums, Bazan ditched the name and opted to go solo. “Phoenix” is a return to the old — a rebirth of the band, and a meditation on Bazan’s childhood.
While the “Phoenix” name has a symbolic meaning of rebirth for the band, it’s also the name of Bazan’s childhood hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, from where the subject material for the album is dug up. Pedro the Lion has always been a little nostalgic, and “Phoenix” amps this factor up to 10. Lyrically, “Phoenix” is rich; Bazan deftly weaves a tapestry of an unhappy childhood, tracing his early memories up to somewhere in teenagedom. It’s a nice progression for the album, which, in a sense, grows up a little more with each song. However, “Phoenix” is lacking a bit sonically.
“Phoenix” sounds like a long car ride through Arizona. It’s dry and red, only occasionally lush; oftentimes, it feels like you are driving on a treadmill. There are a few songs on the album that musically match the quality of the lyrics. But at the same time, Pedro the Lion has never been the type of music you sing along to.
“Phoenix” is classic Pedro the Lion, but the problem with a return to a classic style is that a large part of the charm is rooted in the familiarity of the work. I’m sure that with each relisten I’ll grow fonder of the album, but for now, it’s thorny. An immediate sense of connection is missing, and I wonder if Bazan could have pushed a little more for something new rather than falling back to the old norm.
Of course, that return to the old also brings with it the return of what Pedro the Lion has always done well, which is portraits of the intimately personal inner workings of Bazan. One of the things I love about Bazan is that while his music, particularly under Pedro, is billed as Evangelical Christian — my dad used to sell Pedro the Lion at Mardel, for crying out loud — it isn’t a glossed-over sort of faith. Most of Pedro the Lion’s songs wrestle Christianity more than they espouse it. “Phoenix” is no different. In “My Phoenix,” Bazan refutes the ideals of Christianity that his family holds while still trying to hold on to his own sense of faith, singing, “But if the vision of the Christ / My family sees / Is my blurry vision’s greatest enemy.”
“Phoenix” is an album that requires time and attention to be appreciated. It’s a hard listen, but it’s ultimately a rewarding one. It doesn’t cover new ground sonically, but it is a welcome return to the old nonetheless.