On his new album Phoenix—following an instrumental synth intro somewhere between floaty and ominous—David Bazan charges into “Yellow Bike." It sounds like an indie take on Bruce Springsteen. Here is the gruff-voiced guitar grandeur, the precise lyrical verve (“On a desert Christmas morning, 1981 / one month shy of six years old / in the valley of the sun”), the fixation with the road, and the ruined triumph. Bazan draws a clean line between his adult and childhood selves, comparing his loneliness riding a yellow bike to life touring: “My kingdom for someone to ride with.”
“Yellow Bike” could come off cloyingly sentimental, but under Bazan’s writing and musicianship the song soars, as does much of Phoenix. Bazan hasn’t recorded as Pedro the Lion since 2004’s Achilles’ Heel. But the local singer-songwriter has been steadily working in the interim, releasing moody (okay, depressive) albums like Blanco and Curse Your Branches under his own name.
So Phoenix is a fittingly big album, a return, a homecoming. Pedro the Lion started as a Christian indie band in 1995, but over its course Bazan had a mounting crisis of faith. Even still, church haunts the proceedings. Bazan isn’t shy with the title’s mythological qualities. And of course he shouldn’t be: If working under a pseudonym contains some self-mythologizing, then returning to an earlier one after 15 years is some Ovid shit.
That might come across as self-aggrandizing if Bazan weren’t so conflicted about everything, and if he didn’t have such a fine sense of scale. Mostly Phoenix is literal. Bazan lived in the Arizona city as a kid, and many of the album’s best moments spring from precise childhood memories seen through Bazan’s present lens. “Model Homes” locates longing in his family’s tours of new homes, but he’s less interested in the economic qualities of the search than the existential ones—again, loneliness. “Circle K” is a melancholy look at his weekly allowance (can’t buy a skateboard, heads to the convenience store). On “Black Canyon” Bazan recounts his paramedic uncle responding to the scene of a man’s highway suicide.
These stories unfurl amid guitar rock that feels of a piece with Bazan’s previous work yet a step grander. If there’s a major fault to Phoenix, it’s that about two-thirds of the way through that sonic territory flattens, and for a few songs the album drags.
But by “My Phoenix,” the guitars’ crashing strums help bring the album to a climax as Bazan’s voice—ever mournful, now beautifully weathered—approaches the title directly: “Whether high and lifted up / Or the dust becoming dust / Somehow I’m still in love / With my Phoenix.” Instead of a bird rising from ashes, the song, about Bazan’s return to Phoenix as an adult, is a literal homecoming, a grounding. The past is forever there and—in name, in place—Bazan has artfully accepted that.
Pedro the Lion
Jan 18, KEXP in the Gathering Space, free