The return of Pedro The Lion isn’t one that’s felt like a particularly long time coming. Sure, fifteen years between albums would appear to be a prospect that needs to be rectified sooner rather than later, particularly in the era of meticulously-planned breakups and reformations, but this isn’t a project vaulted forward by nostalgia to the same extent as so many others in emo’s early-2000s period. Rather, it’s indicative of David Bazan’s impetus to create, stemming from a period of dejection and burnout that saw a resurgence of a band that was undoubtedly nestled among cult favourites of the time, but released a number of genuinely loved and revered albums in their heyday. It’s what ultimately makes the reference to the phoenix in this album’s title particularly relevant, accounting for both Bazan’s Arizona hometown that provided such creative fertility, and the image of a force rising from the ashes to return and thrive.
The former is undeniable, with so much of this album entrenched in Bazan’s past and the resonance it’s had on him years later, but whether Phoenix is that huge resurgence is a bit trickier to pin down. It’d be wrong to call this a bad album, and with the warm, burnished tones and intimate thoughtfulness that comes from both wistful self-examination and a deep connection to nostalgia, it’s exactly the sort of material one would associate with a Pedro The Lion album, and – rather fittingly – is likely invoke a similar emotional response to those with a deeper connection to this band. But while the depth and poignancy is laid out bare and feels consistently well-realised in Bazan’s examination of it, there’s something here that holds Phoenix back from being truly excellent.
The one thing that certainly isn’t is Bazan himself who, with deep, world-weary tones and a knack for a soul-bearing style of writing that captures such a raw reality effortlessly, is easily the beating heart of this album and its unequivocal standout. There’s an honesty that makes his presence so compelling in the childhood memories that remain relevant to him today, like finding and experiencing the dichotomy between happiness and emptiness on Yellow Bike and Circle K, or the drive to achieve more that feels out of his control on Model Homes. Going even deeper though, there are memories of his paramedic uncle’s involvement at the scene of a trucking accident on Black Canyon and the personal neuroses of Quietest Friend that form darker clouds, underscoring the sense of melancholy that Phoenix feels so dependent on, and when Leaving The Valley rounds the albums off, it caps a journey fraught with mental rigour, but one with the sort of reflective, formative pathos that’s hard not to admire.
And yet, to get to the root of Phoenix’s issues, it’d be in how all of this is presented, and while it’s far from the worst thing ever, the lack of anything remarkable in really any form does a disservice to what this album sets out to do. To Pedro The Lion’s credit, it would be difficult to pull off anything like that without seeming monumentally trite, and at least with the burring alt-rock muscle of Clean Up and My Phoenix or the more prominent organ to give the interlude Piano Bench a bigger sense of scope, it’s the expected well of rugged, grown-up emo that’s an easy sell for a returning classic band like this. Even then though, there can be a lack of variety or flair that really does harm it as a whole, and with production specifically designed to be gruffer and bring forward the album’s deeper rumble, it can lead to tracks like Powerful Taboo feeling needlessly leaden. For an album rooted in rocky desert landscapes, such a synergetic creative choice is admirable, but occasionally it doesn’t feel like the best option for the actual music.
It’s a bit of a buzzkill, but at least Phoenix still has plenty of details and emotive presence to allow it to stand as a good album despite its flaws. For this sort of burly, no-frills emo that’s focused more on the content than the execution, Pedro The Lion have landed back on their feet with an album that mightn’t be a classic, but does no damage to their legacy whatsoever, holding on to resonance and openness that never won’t have a lot of weight. There’s definitely been better music like this released, even over the last few years, but it’s good to have more for Pedro The Lion, if only to see such a beloved band doing as well as they are.
For fans of: The Appleseed Cast, Braid, Hey Mercedes
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Phoenix’ by Pedro The Lion is released on 18th January on Big Scary Monsters / Polyvinyl Records.