I have a confession to make: I like Puritan literature. I don’t think many functional college students enjoy the Puritans’ works (and for these purposes, I’ll consider myself to be relatively functional), but, just as I can justify my love of Rush and The Gin Blossoms, I feel like I can back this one up. As much as literature anthology authors love to highlight the stoicism, judgmentalism, narrow-mindedness, and prudishness of this sect of early American settlers, I’ve always seen an interesting set of paradoxes at play in the writing of Puritans like Jonathan Edwards and Anne Bradstreet. I understand how readers could be turned off by these authors’ didacticism and emphasis on sin, guilt, and man’s helplessness, and I’ll readily admit that there were some very dangerous aspects of Puritan culture (Salem witch trials, anyone?), but I’ve always felt that the tensions these men and women wrestled with are well worth looking into, even if they carry some ridiculously heavy baggage. The conflicts at work in Puritan life — rationalism vs. emotionalism (see Edwards, a strong proponent of Enlightenment principles and scientific thought but also known for delivering dramatic sermons that aimed for the gut rather than the heart), the justice of rewarding hard work/punishing laziness vs. the grace of charity, contentment in the simple things vs. constantly striving for improvement and expansion (both materially and metaphysically), free will vs. fatalism, the world we experience vs. the world we think will come, personal freedom vs. the interest of the majority — are the same things we fight with, constantly change our minds about, and often times fail to reach a satisfactory conclusion about, and for that reason, I feel that their litearture offers some eloquent commentary on the human condition.
And yes, that introduction has a purpose — after all, we are talking David Bazan here, and the first issue we’re always confronted with in a Pedro the Lion album is how inseperable his Christian faith is from the rest of his existence. Critics docked points from early albums like It’s Hard to Find a Friend and The Only Reason I Feel Secure because of their explicit spirituality and Bible references, while touting Pedro’s (musically and lyrically) lesser albums, the concept-burdened Winners Never Quit and Control, as having more integrity than the rest of his canon. While Pedro’s concept albums are still well worth owning, their incisive socio-political commentary hasn’t held up as well as Bazan’s more personal material, which is somehow simultaneosly more biting and endearing. The more Bazan risks coming across as a hand-wringing Bible-thumper (which he never actually has come across as, but is always mistaken for everytime he slides some mention of "sin" or "God" into a song… seems like the indie rock press is a bit more reactionary than we’d like to think they are, eh?), the better his songs are, it seems.
And why is this? It’s because, like the better Puritan writers, Bazan never resorts to vapid sloganeering and flimsy mental crutches to resolve his human battles. While Control and Winners Never Quit were certainly not without their spiritual under(over?)tones — both dealt heavily with hypocrisy and depravity — Achilles Heel marks a return to form of sorts, as Bazan once again explores his own struggles with the paradoxes of faith, philosophy, our times, and just being a human being. Even when he assumes the voice of a third party or sings a fictional narrative, he does so with an introspective flair that was missing from the storylines of his last two full lengths.
Musically, it also seems like Bazan has tempered the growth of his two previous records with the more humble sensibility of his early days. Songs like "Bands with Managers" and "The Fleecing" sound like the next logical step after It’s Hard to Find a Friend, but janglier, more melodically adventurous cuts like "Keep Swinging", "Arizona", and "Foregone Conclusion" are peppered with the dirtier guitars and spicier drums of Control. While Achilles Heel’s choruses are some of Bazan’s most infectious yet, he doesn’t make the mistake of letting his spartan instrumentation overpower his words, as he did on portions of his other two Jade Tree releases.
After countless listens, I’m struggling to see how any Pedro fan (or casual follower, for that matter) could be truly disappointed with Achilles Heel. Just when it seemed like he may have been switching into artistic autopilot, Bazan whipped out a set of songs that marries the best elements of all of his previous albums. As always, his lyrics are delivered with a most rare integrity — he’s not afraid to admit when he’s struggling, and he’s also not afraid to admit when he feels like he’s right and that you should agree with him. You can love or hate his beliefs all day long, but in the end, you can’t accuse David Bazan of putting out an irrelevant statement about what it means to be alive and uncertain. Before writing him off as close-minded, open your own mind first. And, by all means, enjoy the tunes, because they’re good ‘uns.