In many ways the perfect indie star for an imperfect age, Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan embodies the contradictions of whatever “emo” is supposed to be. The devout evangelical Christian from Seattle holds deep moral convictions but relentlessly attacks 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 (headlining as Pedro the Lion the band and solo with fellow Christian iconoclasts like Damien Jurado) and an underground-driven groundswell of fan support, he’s become a significant concert draw despite his contentious and 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.
Achille’s Heel follows in the same vein, but the band’s attempts to diversify the tone are not always successful. New bassist/guitarist/drummer TW 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 rock would scarcely step within earshot of Bazan’s lyrical themes of betrayal, moral conflict, death and denial.
The iTunes-only Stations consists of six performances broadcast on radio.