In the rock and roll tradition of Johnny Cash and Pete Townsend, Seattle-based indie rock band Pedro the Lion has embraced storytelling as their means of musical expression. Lyrically, however, songwriter David Bazan follows more closely in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe.
Tales of human tragedy and betrayal have been the focus of the band’s last two works, and their latest album Achilles Heel is inspired by a similar sentiment.
Far from indulging in pessimism for its own sake, Bazan’s themes seem to be based on observations from his own 29-year journey, the product of which has been some of the most socially conscious narrative songwriting of the past decade.
But Bazan is more than just the songwriter and storyteller fronting the band. For the past eight years, “Pedro the Lion” has been the moniker for Bazan himself. With few exceptions, Bazan has composed the guitar, bass, drum and vocal tracks on each of his albums with the help of only a few close friends from the Seattle area. As a band, Pedro the Lion has been virtually formless.
They have done national tours with as few as two and as many as five members, with Bazan as the only steady member since their first EP, Whole, was released in 1997. On tour, the only accompanying musicians in the band have frequently been members of opening acts.
At a 2002 show featuring three different bands made up of the same five members, a fan yelled from the crowd, “Hey, are you guys just one big band?” To which Bazan replied, “Well, yeah, I guess it’s all the same dudes.”
Audience Q & A sessions have been a staple at Pedro live shows for years. Five or six songs into the set, Bazan will timidly ask, “Are there any questions or comments at this point?”
Fans then inquire about topics as varied as the meaning of metaphors in Bazan’s lyrics, how much he weighs, his thoughts on the Bible and where he plans on spending the night during his stay in town.
When the band played in Philadelphia last June, one fan asked, “How does your wife feel about all of the spouses being killed off in your albums?” A legitimate question, because it has happened more than once.
Control, Pedro the Lion’s 2002 critically acclaimed concept album, tells the story of a marriage gone awry under the weight of the daily grind of American normalcy.
Over the course of ten tracks, Bazan relays the narrative of a family’s cycle of selfish love and vain pursuit that perpetuates itself in younger generations, culminating with a wife murdering an adulterous husband.
In 2000 Bazan released Winners Never Quit, a tale of an alcoholic politician who kills his wife when she tries to ruin him, and later kills himself.
The morbid fixations in Bazan’s songs may seem to be the product of a twisted mind, but looking at his evolution as a songwriter shows his lyrics to be the work of one who has struggled in vain to find moral relevance in his surroundings.
In addition to the violence and tragedy in his albums, Bazan regularly questions his faith in the Judeo-Christian God and often reasons with political leaders who have selective amnesia of their own ideals. Frustrated by his search for change and understanding, Bazan’s words are simply the exasperated testimony of a man who has been driven to embrace universal cynicism as a last resort.
Although Achilles Heel is Pedro’s first full-length album in over five years that wasn’t written entirely in story form, Bazan nonetheless includes several autonomous stories of death and despair.
In “Discretion” he tells of a murder plot against a farmer and his family, and in “Transcontinental” he journals the reflections of a man whose legs have been severed by a freight train.
Surprisingly, there are a few moments on the new album that betray Bazan’s traditionally pessimistic view of his faith journey. For once his lyrics sound less like the ventings of a hopeless journeyman and more like someone who has actually arrived somewhere. In “The Fleecing”, Bazan boils down his religious pilgrimage to these four lines: “I could buy you a drink, I could tell you all about it, I could tell you why I doubt it, and why I still believe.”
John Alexander can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.