Achilles’ Heel is monumental achievement for a band, the kind of record most musicians only dream about making. It’s rare to hear a rock record that borrows liberally from past accomplishments while continuing to push the sonic envelope.
Here are two vital points I need to make about the group before I continue: one, David Bazan, the main songwriter and instrumentalist for Pedro, is a Christian; two, there’s a good chance the contents of Bazan’s songs will offend some people.
Which, frankly, is a good thing. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
Eschewing the linear, conceptive narratives he utilized on his last two records, Bazan focuses more on personal issues ranging from alcoholism to resignation brought on by a disabling auto accident. I’m sure this sounds like the makings of a dark and gloomy album (which could describe some previous Pedro records in spades), Achilles’ Heel is far from bleak.
In a musical sense, most of this liveliness comes from the fact Bazan recorded much of the album live with long-time friend and collaborator T.W. Walsh. Instead of being crushed by sterility and over-production, Achilles’ Heel sounds fresh and alive. There’s still a ton of dark subject matter, but at least the guys sound like they had a blast in the recording process.
Instrumentally, the songs merge the jangly melodic qualities of the early Pedro records with the thunderous, winding aspects of latter-day efforts. "The Poison" melds a haunting vocal melody and acoustic guitar part with some of the most harrowing lyrics about alcohol abuse on tape ("My old man always swore that hell would have no flame / just a front row seat to watch your true love pack her things and drive away"). "Discretion" chronicles a murder attempt gone awry to the tune of chiming guitars and an amped-up chorus.
There are even a few songs that show the group heading in a new direction. "Keep Swinging" would sound right at home on Abbey Road, and "Foregone Conclusions," which is arguably the best song on the record, has more than a little bit of country influence.
The best part is the album is catchy, and definitely not in a shallow way. Bazan has always been a great songwriter, but this album is staggeringly mature in every aspect. "I Do," for example, remains infectious without cheapening the lyrics, which invade the mind of a father worrying about the future of his newborn son ("I thought to myself if he only knew he would climb right back in").
Okay, back to the topic of Bazan offending people. The last Pedro record, Control, raised more than one saved eyebrow with its lyrical content, and Achilles’ Heel definitely continues the trend. Some of the most thought-provoking and inspiring lyrics are the ones we can’t print here. In my opinion, Bazan’s use of cuss words can be taken as appropriate; using something less offensive would sugar-coat a reprehensible situation. Still, you have to be the judge whether you think they’re necessary or not. Make sure to know what you’re getting into before you listen to the record.
Also worth mentioning is the dark nature of some of the themes. Some critics have complained that most Pedro records are a dour, humorless affair. I think they’re frankly missing the point. It’s difficult to listen to Achilles’ Heel without donning your irony-detecting helmet. Some of the bleak lyrics are written intentionally to highlight the alternative: a more Christ-centric approach.
Achilles’ Heel is a remarkable snapshot of a band reaching the zenith in their music-making career. It’s a gorgeous and challenging album, one that’s daunting in its ambition. If Pedro were to call it quits after the release of this record, they’d have done it so on one of the highest notes imaginable.
Achilles’ Heel will be released on CD on May 25, 2004 from Jade Tree Records.
Grade: 4.0- A+