- by Nathaniel FitzGerald
David Bazan has not stopped making music in the fifteen years since the last Pedro The Lion record. Between Headphones, Lo Tom, and his solo output, he's released at least seven records (I've probably missed a few). During that time, he's spent much of his time on the road, playing acoustic house shows across North America (I was lucky enough to catch him the next town over in 2013).
And during that time, the line between his work under the Pedro the Lion moniker and his Christian name has been a bit blurry. The Pedro catalogue has informed much of his live set lists. His solo songs often reference lyrics from Pedro songs.
Phoenix does nothing to draw that line any more clearly. In fact, one popular theory was that Pedro songs were fictional and Bazan songs were autobiographical. But considering that this is the first of five (!!!) records based on the geography of his life, that theory is blown pretty far out of the water.
The narrative of Phoenix opens with young David on his sixth birthday receiving a yellow bicycle. As the songs go on, that child faces the cruelties of life for the first time. He witnesses the heaviness on his paramedic uncle after a fatal car accident. He faces his first letdowns from the people he depends on. He finds his sense of identity uprooted as his family packs up into a Uhaul and moves away from everything he's known. These songs are deeply autobiographical, but they're told with the same epic, magical realism that has informed the best Pedro the Lion songs. Cities become worlds unto themselves. Jesus Christ stands silently by to watch a squandered allowance.
Sonically, this might be the finest thing he's ever done. The production is pristine and clear. Pedro the Lion has always been synonymous with slow, arpeggiating electric guitars and minor-keyed melodies (read: slowcore), but Phoenix turns the volume up a bit. The songs rattle with an overdrive that has been reserved for only the most aggressive songs (read: "Second Best"). "My Quietest Friend" is a ballad played as loud as possible. The staggering "My Phoenix" drives along with big, chunky riffs under Bazan's soaring voice, which is stronger now than ever. Sidenote: at the house show, someone asked when he realized he could sing, and he said, "probably around 2007"—three years after the then-final Pedro album.
With so many bands reuniting and recording new music these days, return albums can often feel stale. But Phoenix might be the greatest album David Bazan has ever released, regardless of the moniker. And I know that the third week of January might be a bit early to name the Album of the Year, but every other release is going to have to fight to top Phoenix.