Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan emerged from Seattle in the late 1990s as the perfect embodiment of the contradictions of whatever “emo” was supposed to be. At the time a devout evangelical Christian, he wrote songs grappling with his own deep moral convictions riven by merciless attacks on his own hypocrisy and that of the church, the government, business, romance and sex. He treats his fans respectfully (every show includes a question-and-answer session) while urging them to recognize the all-too-human moral failings of their elders and the institutions that govern their lives. Through relentless touring (as a headlining band and as a solo artist with fellow Christian iconoclasts like Low and Damien Jurado) and an underground-driven groundswell of fan support, Pedro the Lion became a significant concert draw and a substantial critical success in its early years — despite Bazan’s contentious, sometimes divisive, lyrics.
Whole, the first release by Pedro the Lion (a name derived from a character in a children’s book Bazan attempted to write), is an EP epitomized by simple ringing guitars and themes of religion, drugs and betrayal. Recorded with an impromptu band of Northwest-based musicians playing the spare arrangements, Bazan reveals himself as a strong lyricist and singer. In “Nothing,” he sings wearily, “It’s very obvious that your ideals are not for me,” although he closes desperately, “I hope we have ourselves an understanding.” “Almost There” is a numbed drug anthem. The indie rock agnostic concludes the title track ruefully, “He says You died on Calvary / If You’ve got proof I will believe.”
It’s Hard to Find a Friend shows evidence of serious hours spent in Bible study, with songs derived from the Book of Hosea (“Of Minor Prophets and Their Prostitute Wives”). Bazan tends to write morality plays in which characters face the choice of right or wrong. (Almost invariably they falter.) “The Longest Winter” solemnly observes the lost loves of youth and concludes that the narrator will live out his days “with a cat for a wife.” He bemoans Christians who adhere to ritual without recalling the principle behind the faith, and in the mildly rocking “When They Get to Know You They Will Run” argues for a more natural approach to human beauty: leg hair, comfortable clothes and all. Bazan never allows himself the luxury of hypocrisy, instead finding common cause with the lost and the lonely.
The Only Reason I Feel Secure (… is that I am validated by my peers), like the prior Pedro the Lion releases, was reissued by Jade Tree in 2001 after Bazan signed with the label. The lyrics are as barbed as ever, and the backing band fills in the songs nicely. Making effective use of repetition, “Criticism as Inspiration” rises from simple drum and guitar beginnings to a rare level of beauty, while “Letter From a Concerned Follower” thoughtfully addresses the future of religious belief in the context of modern technology. “Be Thou My Vision” is a medieval hymn recast for solo acoustic guitar and mumbling.
Winners Never Quit is a song cycle about a political leader who loses his moral compass and succumbs to drunkenness and domestic violence. The song titles are banalities that Bazan eviscerates, such as “Slow and Steady Wins the Race” and “Never Leave a Job Half Done.” Self-recorded, this stripped-down album lacks sonic variety, but the songs are still good. Bazan deserves credit for his ability to set conversational dialogue within song lyrics. Progress is a stopgap EP featuring “June 18, 1976” and “April 6, 2039,” a morbid examination of technology, medicine, moral relativism and decline. It also includes live versions of two older songs.
Casey Foubert joined Bazan on bass and keyboards prior to the recording of Control, the most compelling album of Pedro the Lion’s prolific career. With the additional heft of Foubert in a band capable of intense rock bluster, Control is astonishing in its coiled energy, pairing Bazan’s scathing lyricism with a newfound rock charge. An embittered masterpiece that mercilessly dissects the hypocrisy in American religious, sexual, economic and political life, the album found a sizable audience and led to the unlikely sight of throngs of young alterna-Christians singing along with songs conflating sexual release with religious epiphany (“Rapture”), contemplating the pros and cons of divorce (“Options”) and infidelity (“Rehearsal”), addressing death (“Priests and Paramedics”) and music industry careerism (“Penetration”) and, most biliously, “Indian Summer”’s truly nasty couplet: “All the experts say you ought to start them young / That way they’ll naturally love the taste of corporate cum.” Every song is tremendously catchy, and Bazan’s rockist influences come to the fore with big-time hooks and a new energy in his singing.
Achilles Heel follows in the same vein, but the band’s attempts to diversify the tone are not always successful. New bassist/guitarist/drummer T. William Walsh (also of Headphones and the Soft Drugs) co-wrote some of the material. Bazan’s dark sense of humor manifests itself in “Foregone Conclusion,” in which one friend tries to turn another toward his brand of religious belief, and he rebukes, “You were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord / To hear the voice of the Spirit begging you to shut the fuck up.” With the band’s energetic charge and his howling singing style, the music periodically approaches a Southern-rock boogie tone, although boogie rockers would scarcely step within earshot of Bazan’s lyrical themes of betrayal, moral conflict, death and denial.
Facing a complex set of challenges — both personal and theological — Bazan underwent a crisis of faith in the latter Pedro years. Never doing things by half-measures, this serious student of Christianity became a rigorous critic and skeptic, unraveling the tenets of his own belief system and ultimately walking away from the faith. Concurrently, as he would later admit, his drinking had worsened and his marriage was struggling. In this period of upheaval and spiritual desolation, he chose to retire the Pedro the Lion band name after Achilles Heel.
The first post-Pedro release came as Headphones, a record in which Bazan joins T.W. Walsh in a keyboard-influenced band with heavy analog drumming by Frank Lenz (ex-Starflyer 59, an alumnus of Bazan’s Christian indie circles). Despite the instrumentation, which hews toward deliberately crude synthpop, Bazan sings in the same morose, distant whine. If there is some humor in the record, it’s decidedly dour, as the titles “Natural Disaster,” “Slow Car Crash” and others imply. It’s a bitter record of betrayal, from the merely marital (“I Never Wanted You” features a narrator walking back his wedding vows) to the murderous (“Gas and Matches” tells of a kidnapping and murder with an ugly undercurrent of transphobia). A hard listen, despite the melodic hooks and warmth in “Pink and Brown” and “Hot Girls.”
Headphones proved to be a one-off, followed by a long and seemingly lonely series of Bazan solo records and tours, starting with the Fewer Moving Pieces EP in 2007. While much of Pedro’s lyrical criticism had been cutting and biting, the opening salvos of Fewer Moving Parts are crude and mean, with ill-humored attacks on right-wing politics, American military adventurism in the Middle East and other easy targets. The subsequent full-length, Curse Your Branches, is much better. Largely addressing Bazan’s crisis of faith and his efforts to be a better husband and father, Curse Your Branches is direct at times: the piano-driven opener revisits the origin story in the Book of Genesis and states baldly, “It’s hard to be a decent human being.” The melodies are refreshingly sophisticated given the crudeness of the prior records, and Bazan tilts toward empathy rather than derision in his portrayals of those suffering. The country-inflected title track, warmed by pedal steel, is Bazan’s “Losing My Religion,” except it’s literally about…losing one’s religion. Indeed much of Curse Your Branches is the work of a Biblically literate former believer, using his knowledge of Scripture to question the validity of religion itself.
Each of the subsequent solo records, from Strange Negotiations in 2011 through Blanco in 2016 and Care in 2017, contains some strong material, but there is a sense of diminishing returns. And clearly, these were exhausting and increasingly painful years, as chronicled in the 2019 documentary film Strange Negotiations.
Evidently Bazan felt the pull of a band setting and formed Lo Tom in 2017 with a set of familiar Pacific Northwest veterans in the overlapping circles of emo and Christian independent music, including T.W. Walsh as well as two former members of Starflyer 59, Trey Many and Jason Martin, who traveled in the same Christian indie circles in the 1990s. The Lo Tom record is brash guitar rock: rough, angry and overly simplistic in the scheme of Bazan’s compositional craft, bludgeoning in its attacks versus Bazan’s typically precise skewing of targets.
Reinvigorated by the band structure, Bazan reconvened Pedro the Lion in 2018 for its first record in fourteen years. Phoenix is richly satisfying, the best Pedro the Lion record since Control, and one of the better Bazan records overall. Despite the titular symbolism of a rebirth from the flames, Phoenix is in fact a clear-eyed reevaluation of Bazan’s Southwestern childhood. Its theme was kindled by a solitary drive through the desert on one of his unending solo tours, as he recalled growing up in a sheltered community in Arizona, where his father was pastor of the church in which he was raised. Phoenix has the familiar burly Pedro guitar chords, unadorned but effective, and better singing than Bazan had ever shown before. Moreover, it has hooks, which were in short supply during some of the solo years.
Brief snippets like “Sunrise” and “Piano Bench” set the scene for the meatier subject matter. “Yellow Bike” tackles themes of unresolved guilt and isolation in a Rosebud-like recollection of a beloved childhood symbol of freedom and independence that was supplanted by the minivans and rental cars of a touring musician. “Quietest Friend” and “Circle K” wring deep drama and self-reflection out of otherwise banal memories of high school rivalries and convenience stores. A recurring Biblical theme is the desert where prophets go out to commune with God, and Bazan revisits that in “My Phoenix,” exploring his tortured relationship with his faith and his ancestral home:
“If the vision of the Christ my family sees
Is my blurry vision’s greatest enemy
Then I still try to tune it in when I get lonely
You know I chase around this desert because I think that’s where You’ll be.”
There is a slew of minor material available: the Bazan Apocrypha. The 2004 iTunes-only Stations consists of six performances broadcast on radio, including a sardonic cover of Randy Newman’s “Political Science,” few things being more Bazanian than jokes about nuclear destruction. In 2014, he re-recorded some of his back catalogue with the Passenger String Quartet as Volume 1 (there is no Volume 2 to date), of primary interest to already-committed fans.
His records of Christmas music are worth exploring: the Christmas Bonus EP in 2016 and the more impressive Dark Sacred Night full-length in 2016, which owes both a spiritual kinship to, and borrows a song from, Low’s landmark Christmas album. For a man who had largely walked away from the theological underpinnings of Christianity years before, Bazan still holds a deep appreciation for its artistic traditions. Dark Sacred Night includes Low’s “Long Way Around the Sea,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” with lyrics by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” alongside more traditional material. It ends with the plaintive “I Just Want to See My Kids on Christmas,” an original country lament that belongs in the pantheon of sad-sack holiday anthems alongside ones by Elvis, the Ramones and John Denver.