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May 26, 2004

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If anyone’s begging for a separation of church and state, it’s Pedro the Lion. But not for the reasons you’d suspect.

Commandments in courthouses might be a different story, but it’s nothing short of gospel truth that faith belongs in the music of this Northwestern slowcore outfit, ostensibly the solo project of Christian indie-rocker David Bazan. It’s the “state” part of the equation that needs to be excised from Pedro’s plan of action.

On Achilles Heel, his band’s fourth full-length release, Bazan continues to delve deeper into the polarizing political invective he introduced on 2000’s Winning Isn’t Everything, later taken to its rhetorical point of no return on 2002’s monochromatic Control.

Here, Bazan tries harder to personalize the political, but too often his sociological studies reveal their subjects to be little more than props in a naturalstic allegory of toil and tragedy. Bazan’s tunnel vision is the problem here: On songs like “Discretion” and “A Simple Plan”, where stylized characters and narrative straw men undercut useful observations on the plight of the working class. In the latter, Bazan’s first-person send-up of blue-collar conditions comes off so satirically lobotomized that it seems to indict the drones rather than the slavedrivers. Clearly, it’s Bazan here who sneers “the plants and the factories / Are perfectly run / The workers and bosses are living as one / People are equal people are good / People are working as hard as they should be”. Rather than show true sympathy by exploring the nuance of even the superficially simplest lives, Bazan makes drearily deterministic morons out of his supposed objects of pathos.

If Bazan had always been such a clumsy political puppeteer, his music would certainly be much more easily dismissed. However, on his first album as Pedro the Lion, the shopworn 1998 classic It’s Hard to Find a Friend, and in sporadic glimpses since, Bazan has sincerely and affectingly explored his doubts and confirmations of Christianity, approaching his faith with a refreshing mixture of careful cynicism and childish awe.

Back then, Bazan struck a perfect balance between gentleness and reprobation because he pilloried himself more often than anyone else. The self-flagellation seemed genuine—Bazan never sold his own sacrifice and failure as Everyman mythology, but tried instead to hash out the daily trials of the duty-bound Christian. A certified idealist, sure, but Bazan’s no egoist, and he’d never posit himself as some sort of guarantor for Christian values. He never made himself represent a greater (and invariably clumsier) truth, so his parables seemed like sweetly off-the-cuff Davey and Goliath tales rather than monolithic pedantry.

Unsurprisingly, Bazan’s still better off when he works from the inside out, writing people with problems rather than the other way around. “Keep Swinging” and “The Poison” are lyrically two of the finest moments on the album, simply because Bazan starts from personal devastation and private despair, then depends on the listener to fill in the ideological blanks. Unfortunately for the former, Bazan adds shameless Crazy Horse coppage to an already-limited musical palette of endless builds and overheated bluster. Before, Bazan’s stolidly workmanlike tunes were only worth studying for how they mimicked the joyless immersion of his lyrics and voice. On “Keep Swinging”, we can’t even claim that marginal indulgence, as it’s such a close cousin to Rust-era Neil that you’d swear Bazan had stolen Ol’ Black herself.

That said, only “The Poison” points towards a new resolution, its tough-minded alt-country an avenue both for Bazan and the genre as a whole to further explore. Free from stylistic signposts or springloaded rhetoric, Bazan closes both song and album with some of his best lines to date: “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”.

As the album’s title unintentionally indicates, there’s a crippling weakness here. Rather than tuck it safely away behind his strengths, however, Bazan inexplicably leaves it out in the open, exposed for all to see.

Stylus Magazine

Josh Love