“But I remember what it was like / astride my yellow bike / first freedom, second life / all the places I could ride / Leaving early, packing light / that little ache inside / my kingdom for someone to ride with.”
I knew very little about Pedro The Lion when I first heard these lines over the weekend. My only experience with the late 90’s legend was a casual listen of 2004’s Achilles Heel, which I listened to with a good friend who loves the band. My interest was piqued enough that when I discovered that indie-rock mastermind David Bazan was releasing his first album in fifteen years under the his old moniker “Pedro The Lion” (he has released under his own name since then), I decided to give Phoenix a listen with very little context for the projects’ long life span.
Jumping in on a new album from an artist decades into their career can feel like a daunting venture, but as it turns out, the album requires little-to-no context to enjoy. I was instantly hooked on the first full song, “Yellow Bike.” Everything about it instantly felt nostalgic to me . . . the guitar chords, thudding drums, Bazan’s worn, passionate voice that somehow calls to mind the bluesy tones of Randy Newman. Through the image of his childhood bike, Bazan beautifully and simply ties his six-year-old self to his present day, forty-three-year-old self; it is an ode to freedom, and a yearning for companionship and belonging within it. The closing chorus subtly changes the last line from “my kingdom for someone to ride with,” to “I’d trade my kingdom for someone to ride with,” exemplifying masterful songwriting, showing how the simple addition of two words can powerfully change the direction and meaning of a song.
The album continues this reflective thread on later tracks, painting vivid images of childhood and connecting them firmly to the present moment. In the song “Model Homes,” Bazan turns memories of house shopping with his parents to the adult longing for change, “Tired of where we live / hoping that it’s not if, but when / when will the wait be over?” This motif is accomplished perhaps most memorably on “Circle K,” where Bazan reminisces on childhood overspending at the convenience store as if it were a prophesy, with a simplicity that denies heavy-handedness, “I spent it all at Circle K / and the good Lord smiled and looked the other way.”
Sonically, Phoenix is a pretty standard rock album, which suits the ballad-like story telling very well. On “Black Canyon,” the haunting tale of a man’s gruesome death under an eighteen-wheeler is punctuated by dissonant guitar chords as pounding toms underline the track, while the chorus jumps out like a stadium rock song. The album’s big guitars and gritty bass could be played in massive arenas or small rock clubs; it does not sound underground, but not so produced that it feels phony.
For as strong as the highlights are, there are some duller moments that don’t stick out as readily, making the album feel slightly uneven. Songs like “All Seeing Eye” towards the end of the record (while brief) drags on a bit, as does the repetition of the simplistic chorus in “My Phoenix.” They are not bad songs, but compared to the richness of the others, play out as obvious weaker-links.
The title Phoenix carries not only the mythical imagery of rebirth but also the name of the city where Bazan grew up. This feels appropriate in both senses, as it seems to signify a new era in Bazan’s career that is firmly rooted in memories of the past with time-worn songwriting that pulls the two together quite well. It successfully places the listener into the world of Pedro The Lion, memorializing a past with an urgency to be remembered.
“We could write me some reminders, I’d memorize them / I could sing them to myself and whoever’s listening / I could put them on a record about my hometown / sitting here with pen and paper, I’m listening now.” – “Quietest Friend”
Rating: 7.7 (Stand Out)
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Release Date: Jan 18, 2019
Label: Polyvinyl Records