When a band comes back because they want a bigger paycheck, but the end result of that cash-grab turns out to be very good, what does it say about cash-grab reunions? While not every band is Pedro the Lion, they serve as a perfect example of a band that did exactly this, and shamelessly. In an interview on the eve of his return to playing live as Pedro the Lion, frontman David Bazan was candid about his motivations, meeting with his management about whether he’d considered playing shows billed as something related to the defunct, beloved Seattle outfit. “Look, I’m just saying you’ll get paid three times the amount of money if it’s Pedro-related. That’s just what the reality is,” he would tell Bazan, which was apparently what Bazan needed to resurrect the moniker.
Bazan, though, is not a man of half-measures, content to play a spattering of predictable shows with a gaggle of extra disposable hired guns. The restless musician toured heavily through 2017, slowly playing new material. In October announced Phoenix, his first record under Pedro the Lion in 15 years, and the first of five albums, all of them centered around places he grew up – although the title nods to Pedro the Lion’s rebirth, it’s far more practical than that. Here, he shifts back and forth in time, examining his childhood and contrasting it with how it feels to return there as an adult. He immediately takes us back nearly 40 years to “A desert Christmas morning 1981/ One month shy of six years old/ In the valley of the sun.” “Yellow Bike,” like much of Bazan’s work, is straightforward, with him singing about the the titular bike and learning to ride it in the same way one might treat a new car – as a source of freedom, and of the yearning (or, in Bazan’s words, “That little ache inside”) that comes from that freedom. Like the album that follows, “Yellow Bike” bursts with life, but when forced to examine the possibilities of youth through his permanently-sad eyes, it casts a satisfying pall over even the brightest of sad jams.
Phoenix, Arizona is as much a character here as his family. Mundane locales are complexly mythologized, from the Circle K where he blew the money he’d been saving for a Santa Cruz skateboard on snacks in “Circle K,” or the air conditioned model homes he’d be mystified by after church every week in “Model Homes,” or even “The low slung houses between Hilda’s and our old house” on “Tracing the Grid.” Elsewhere, he’s even more granular, calling out streets (“Leaving the Valley” or the bizarre, grisly “Black Canyon”) in ways that render them fantastical – he may as well be singing about Asgard. Nothing is ever as it seems here, though, and no matter how innocuous the places he’s singing about, what they represent carries far more weight – that Circle K is his myopic desire for temporary joy, with the model homes the promise of joy an entirely different life could bring.
His songs in present day don’t bring much joy, either. “Sitting alone here in my grown up mess/ I wish I’d known better,” he sings on the catchy, self-flagellating “Clean Up,” where he turns his need to tend to his own flaws into a nursery rhyme. We follow him as he navigate the city from memory on the vivid “Tracing the Grid,” and feels called back to the place in “All Seeing Eye.” Eventually, his looking back deposits him in a pool of guilt, and on the fleetingly-meta standout “Quietest Friend,” as he attempts to make amends with a childhood friend he was a jerk to, recounting his willingness to turn on him for the promise of simply fitting in with the other kids.
Phoenix ends with Bazan’s family leaving the titular city in a U-Haul, already feeling gravity pulling him back. “Leaving the Valley” is a bittersweet song that acknowledges the fleeting comforts of getting exactly what you want: “We got our model home/ But what the Lord gives he can take away,” he moans, moments before calling out street names, as though doing so will bring him back to the comforts he’s leaving behind. Knowing that he’s got four more albums like this in store turns “Valley” into a soft cliffhanger before the sequel, itching to know where young David Bazan might end up next.
After repeated listens through Phoenix, you’d be forgiven for wishing Bazan had decided to shift his sound between now and Achilles Heel – this is, perhaps, the only lazy thing about the cash-in that fueled the Pedro the Lion reunion. In place of innovation, though, we get an album that begs to be dissected, teeming with life and rich detail – one that sounds exactly like what the Pedro the Lion of 2019 should sound. If this is what it sounds like when a band is “in it for the money,” we all owe capitalism a small thank-you note.