The Lion In Summer
Pedro The Lion brings its beautifully turbulent show to Buffalo.

When singer/songwriter David Bazan needed a name to encapsulate his gloomy, emotionally battle-stricken rock songs, he went with a literary reference – not Bukowski or Kafka, mind you, but a fairytale character of his own creaton. The Seattle native had plans of writing a children’s book called “Pedro The Lion,” but instead it became the moniker for his much darker musical side. It has seemed like a huge oxymoron ever since, but when listening to Pedro The Lion’s sixth album, Achilles’ Heel, the name starts to make sense.

“It’s always been a huge goal of mine to make a twisted sort of fairytale,” ponders Bazan in an interview with Artvoice. “But I wasn’t necessarily trying for any kind of concept on Achilles’ Heel. We went into the studio with one pretense: having fun. I really think that comes through on the recording.”

From the opening chords of Achilles’ Heel’s first track, “Bands With Managers,” the group’s intentions are clear. A slice of clever, lo-fi pop, the song is highlighted by Bazan’s sweet, yearning falsetto – a ray of sunlight that his earlier albums desperately needed. There’s less claustrophobia than Pedro The Lion’s previous effort, Control. The 2002 release is one of the most pessimistic of recent years, casting stones at everything from married couples to multinational corporations. While Heel’s lyrical topics remain somber and serious, the brooding sound of Control has been ditched, in favor of softer, more lilting harmonies and a slyer sense of humor.

“I was aware that Control did have a cynical relentlessness to it; there were a lot of changes I wanted to make this time around,” admits Bazan. “I certainly didn’t want to make that record again.”

What Bazan has made is an exercise in an age-old dichotomy – lyrics about life’s struggles and doubts, wrapped in crisp harmonies and pretty chords. The same formula has been put to good use on Frank J. Wilson’s “Last Kiss” and the Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves The Sun.” It’s also prevalent in classic children’s literature, notably C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, a collection that rings true with Pedro The Lion in many ways.

“There’s something about that style of writing that always draws me in,” Bazan explains. “For this album, I abandoned the idea of having a set concept for a song. I let the connections be more random in my brain. It's a part of the greater philosophy of the whole record.”

The connections to Lewis are too numerous to be coincidental. His story of an enchanted land and the group of children that see it from creation to destruction is heavily Biblical and ultimately depressing. Bazan is a devout Christian who openly struggles with his faith on Achilles’ Heel. As a result, his album is full of focused sadness and a calmer sense of beauty.

Also, the only constant of Lewis’ books is the character of Aslan, a thinly veiled Christ figure that just happens to be a lion. It’s obvious that Bazan’s art is much closer to the world of Puddleglum and Prince Caspian than the glossy, commercialized Christian rock that reminds us secular folks of good old-fashioned brainwashing.

“I certainly don’t like it,” Bazan responds when asked about the rampant popularity of so-called “worship music.” “It’s the antithesis of Christ and his teachings; it just seems really sad and out of place. The music takes more cues from the moronic aspects of pop culture than anywhere else. The absence of the influence of the Bible is really noticeable.”

Music fans that typically shy from anything labeled “Christian” needn’t worry in this case. On Achilles’ Heel, Pedro The Lion has achieved its most effective balance of songwriting and soapbox standing, relying more on broader ideas and gorgeous bursts of harmony. “Keep Swinging” is a light, bouncing song about being drunk and miserable. “Foregone Conclusions” mourns a failing relationship over a punchy, country-rock groove. “The Poison” could be a sweet, acoustic love song, if the lyrics weren’t about medicating pain with alcohol.

When Bazan does get religious, it’s an expression of the guilt and self-loathing that have kept people going to church for centuries. On “The Fleecing,” Bazan bemoans the many pitfalls of blind faith with masochistic glee: “And who shall I blame for this sweet and heavy trouble/For every stupid struggle/I don't know/I could buy you a drink/I could tell you all about it/I could tell you why I doubt it, and why I still believe.”

C.S. Lewis talks about the exact same kind of religious stubbornness throughout the Narnia books, especially in this passage from The Silver Chair: “I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia.” Achilles’ Heel is the first album of David Bazan’s career that comes close to reaching his stated goal, because it has the necessary components of a twisted fairytale: generous helpings of stark reality, and several ways to escape from it.

Before even listening to Achilles’ Heel, it was clearly a step forward for Pedro The Lion, because its album covers have always reflected the mood of the disc inside. This cover is in stark contrast to the rest of the band’s catalog – it’s a vivid illustration of a roaring, yet somehow friendly lion. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of place as the cover of a children’s book. I can see it sitting on the shelves now, the title scripted in white over a blue background: Pedro The Lion Comes Into His Own.

Appeared in the June 24, 2004, issue of Artvoice.