The Return of Pedro the Lion

Aarik Danielsen

Pedro the Lion. Those three little words carry serious emotional freight for a generation of indie-rock disciples. David Bazan emerged in the late 1990s as the main creative force behind the band, creating conviction-laden, Christ-haunted hymns for the depressed and doubting. His songs sympathized with kids who labored to reconcile their affection for Jesus with the fraud they witnessed in the church.

Unable to suspend his disbelief any longer, Bazan eventually left the faith—and the Pedro the Lion name—behind. Subsequent solo albums folded synthesizers into his aesthetic and examined spiritual seismographs to understand the aftershocks of abandoning a lifelong belief (2009’s Curse Your Branches and 2017’s Care are particular Bazan masterpieces).

Craving the camaraderie and dynamics of a rock band, Bazan recently forged a fresh incarnation of Pedro the Lion and released one of the first great records of 2019. Phoenix, the first LP to bear the Pedro the Lion name since 2004’s Achilles Heel, retains the brooding, melodic sensibilities of prior Pedro records while incorporating lessons from Bazan’s textured solo joints. The 13 songs find Bazan trekking back into the Arizona desert where he spent his early childhood, eventually ending up somewhere between the folksy wisdom of “You can’t go home again” and William Faulkner waving his hand.

Resembling its setting, Phoenix captures all the risky, remote beauty of the desert. Guitars murmur like secrets whispered on a rare breeze, then rumble to a roar, like a monsoon created ex nihilo. Bazan has never been in better voice, effortlessly slipping from his raspy middle register to a floating falsetto. Often, he sounds on the verge of figuring it all out before higher notes signal a man overwhelmed by the world’s weight. Rock stars, they’re just like us.

Guitars murmur like secrets whispered on a rare breeze, then rumble to a roar.

Bazan’s desert tour leads to personal landmarks, past roadside curios, through scenes that only make sense in your rearview mirror. Early highlight “Yellow Bike” perfectly captures the freedom of jumping on your first Christmas-morning two-wheeler and pedaling toward the horizon. With adult eyes, Bazan acknowledges the emptiness of freedom without community, hinting at his reasons for restarting a band: “My kingdom for someone to ride with.”

We ride shotgun on Sunday-afternoon tours of “Model Homes,” Bazan singing something like a Psalm as he tries to pray his family into new digs (“When will the wait be over?”). Sitting still and straight next to him, we listen as his parents lead worship from the same “Piano Bench.” Against a hymn-like melody rivaling the Fanny Crosbys and William Cowpers of days past, Bazan sings a short story:

His gentle nature soothed me

The ache in her voice moved me

Sitting side by side on the piano bench

Bazan confesses an excruciatingly common childhood sin on “Quietest Friend,” recalling the time he spurned a faithful companion to win the fickle approval of fairweather pals. Late in the tracklist, “My Phoenix” is the sound of a grown Bazan truly seeing his old stomping grounds and staggering against their political winds:

From a disappointed son

To the city that he loves

The flags you wave around have got me wondering

Ultimately, Bazan can’t hide his faith in Phoenix under a bushel, singing, “Whether high and lifted up, or the dust becoming dust, somehow I’m still in love with my Phoenix.”

The desert possesses its own alchemy, capable of driving a man mad or converting him into a mystic. Sometimes it feels like the end of the earth; at others, it sounds out a siren song. At a pivotal point in the relationship between God and his people, Israel wanted nothing to do with the desert. Deeply skeptical of God, they sighed audibly, expressing the desire to return to Egypt, to return to captivity, where—for so many of them—their story started.

Bazan desires something different. Not back to the desert, but back through; not comfort, but clarity; not a retreat, but a revival. Israel quite literally faced a point of no return—dwelling in the past would mean the end of its future. Bazan shows no interest in being who he was in Phoenix, but knows a healthy interrogation of the past allows us to embrace what’s ahead. Doing the dance of change and restoration, he takes one step back to eventually take many more steps forward.

In doing so, he keeps company with the writer of Ecclesiastes, perhaps the one biblical figure he truly resembles. That ancient preacher knew our lot is not to sit around pining for the good old days. As Phoenix acknowledges, the good old days are rarely as good—or as bad—as we tell ourselves. They are more complicated, formative not definitive, hazy yet somehow illuminating.

Instead, the wise take stock of who they are and where they’ve been. Like adult children rifling through boxes of belongings in their parents’ attics, they interrogate their pasts. They ask hard questions: What parts of their family histories are worth preserving? Which formative traditions deserve furthering? Which aspects of their personal wiring are divinely designed and worth redeeming—and how much is owed to their sinful nature, or what the Bible calls their “old self,” and can be cast aside like moth-eaten clothing in favor of new life?

It’s easy to write the desert off as a place of dry heat and desolation, and not a source of new life. But Phoenix, like the mythic figure which shares the album and city’s name, longs to rise up. This may be where the Bible and Bazan meet. Spiritual and personal deserts reveal our need for a revival that begins outside of us. Sharing in Christ’s sufferings, which included a crucial trip into the desert, means also taking part in his resurrection power, a power which redeems the past, transforms the present, and assures us a future.

Topics: Music