It was just coincidence that David Bazan dropped his Pedro the Lion moniker in 2006, around the same time he “deconverted” from Christianity. But the latter seemed to feed into the former, and when Bazan’s solo output—five albums since 2009—exceeded the four LPs that Pedro the Lion had released between 1998-2004, it seemed like the band was over for good.
Turns out it was just a long break: Bazan revived the band in 2017 and now Pedro the Lion is back with Phoenix, the singer’s first new album as Pedro in 15 years. Like the group’s earlier work, a theme runs through Phoenix. Arizona is where Bazan grew up, and where he discovered during a stop-over in 2016 that while our memories of a time and place stay frozen in our minds, the place itself continues to change and evolve. Though much of the album looks back on his youth, these 13 new songs aren’t a nostalgia trip so much as an effort to make sense of his present by examining the past.
As usual, Bazan does his contextualizing with strong, sometimes caustic lyrical imagery and an unsparing eye for shortcomings and weakness—mostly his own. Unlike most of Pedro’s previous albums, though, there’s a tenderness here that outweighs Bazan’s more lacerating sentiments. There’s still some of the latter: He winces at the callous behavior that wounded a shy pal on “Quietest Friend,” and, on “Black Canyon,” about the aftermath of a man who has been struck by an 18-wheeler, evokes the bleak humor that emergency workers sometimes use to cope with the horrific scenes they encounter everyday.
Most of Phoenix is rather more gentle. Bazan sings in wonder at discovering the freedom of two wheels when he was five on “Yellow Bike,” dreams of a nicer place to live on “Model Homes” and rues spending his allowance on candy and soda at the local convenience store rather than saving up for a coveted skateboard on “Circle K.” His voice remains robust and pleasantly rumpled, and the arrangements on these songs favor big, overdriven guitars. He plays chiming arpeggios through the verses on “Powerful Taboo,” and pumps out burly riffs on “Clean Up” and “My Phoenix,” which balances the tension in his family over Bazan’s lapsed faith with his lingering infatuation with his hometown. Returning home, of course, can’t happen unless you leave in the first place, which is the subject of album closer “Leaving the Valley.” Over a slow beat and weighty guitar, Bazan recounts leaving in a loaded-down U-Haul, and considers the costs of pulling up stakes—of uprooting, really—to make a new life somewhere else. “How do you know you’re finally home?” he wonders.
It’s a fair question, and it might be one he answers by implication with the name on the album cover. Even as Bazan sings about returning as a stranger to a place he once knew intimately, he’s doing it by way of a musical persona he has reanimated. There’s an appealing symmetry there: even if you can’t quite go home again, you can always come full circle.