It’s no accident that so many of our favorite musical artist’s live desperate existences built around pain. They wear the blues on their sleeves, or in the case of a singer like Billie Holiday, a highball glass and a hypodermic needle. It’s not that music fans want to see their beloved artists suffer. It’s just that the torment is often what makes a song great. Because there’s nothing more beautiful than carefully distilled pain wrung out by a musician that knows what they’re doing. But while money and fame aren’t cure-all prescriptions for happiness, they go a long way towards sweeping away despair. Perhaps this is why so many of our darling artists fall off after finding success. It’s not easy to convince an audience that life is suffering when you have homes on five continents and your children have their own personal assistants. Others lose their despondent edge when they find lasting love, clean up a chemical dependency, or discover the services of a good therapist. This is what makes the sophomore slump so difficult to overcome, and often why we don’t want to see our favorite indie bands break through to the pop charts. It is the truly great songwriter (John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Thom Yorke come to mind) that incorporate any circumstance or success into continued quality material.
David Bazan, the driving force behind Pedro the Lion, hasn’t reached Jay-Z’s level of material success, and even fans of Pedro the Lion’s work might not recognize Bazan’s name outside of the context of his band. But the group saw moderate victory with its last album, 2002’s Control. Somehow a band that existed in a foundation of Christian indie rock found an audience with songs that dredge the banks of the river misery. Would the achievement destroy the very fabric that made Pedro the Lion great: poignant, somber songs about Bazan’s moral struggle with faith, marital fidelity, and the reason to keep going in this life? The answer may be in the album’s title, Achilles Heel. Perhaps Bazan recognized what a danger success was to his continued ability to appeal to fans. It sounds as though he used this dilemma to fuel material for the new record, and in pointing out the potential weakness, he overcame it.
Achilles Heel is filled with a few deviations from Pedro the Lion’s previous style. For example, long-term fans will wonder at the higher falsetto with which Bazan sings, and speculate if he is attempting to emulate the success that groups like Coldplay have found recently. But for the most part, Pedro the Lion continue to mine the rich vein of material they’ve been concentrating on from the beginning. Much of Achilles Heel focuses on Bazan’s attempt to hold his relationships together no matter the cost. His relationship with God, his wife and himself all bend under the strain, but he’ll break his bones holding them together. Ultimately, Bazan continues to sound more like a distillation of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and The Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz than the latest flavor of pop star.
Recorded in his home studio near Seattle, Achilles Heel enlists previous collaborator TW Walsh, along with fellow Jade Tree label mates James McAlister and Ester Drang. The album jumps off with “Bands With Managers”, a catchy, ironic song reminiscent of a slowed down Grandaddy ditty that seems inspired by a run-in Bazan had with an arrogant lead singer or actual manager. Bazan uses the context to separate himself from other groups that are so obviously “going places”, using the occasion to posture that his relationship with longtime contributor T. William Walsh is far more important than getting to open for U2 on their next stadium tour. Lyrics like “But I trust T. William Walsh and I’m not afraid to die” are a testament to friendship and loyalty that Bazan takes more seriously than the trajectory of his career.
Unfortunately, Bazan cannot apply this same level of fidelity to the relationship he maintains with his wife. In the past Bazan has spent much lyrical time pondering his tendency towards adultery and his ability to be faithful. Achilles Heel features songs like “I Do”, presenting Bazan’s thoughts as his wife gives birth to their child. As the miraculous labor comes to pass, Bazan wonders which he would take back first: the child he and his wife have, or the ring he gave her. The choice, he sings, is obvious, reflected in both the song’s title and refrain.
Even in metaphor, Bazan can’t help but to tumble through his indecision about relationships. “Arizona” tells the story of the title state’s traitorous romantic relationship with California, much to the chagrin of New Mexico. Strange geographic personification aside, the catchy tune is a perfect allegory for the way Bazan clearly sees every facet of the world.
The cycle, at least on this album, is completed with the last song, “The Poison”. Here is Bazan drinking his misery away and dealing with the aftermath of his actions. Annihilating his innards just seems to make previous mistakes more obvious. At the end of the song he reveals his father’s relationship with women, swearing he would never have a flame, and would instead sit there and watch over and over as true love stumbled away. The last lines of the song, and the album, are: “My old man always swore that hell would have no flame/ Just a front row seat/ To watch your true love pack her things and drive away.” This is Bazan explaining what love is: something you let go of. Something one watches walk away.
If these dysfunctional musings on relationships are indicative of how Bazan relates to others, “The Fleecing” reveals much of how Bazan feels about himself. The music is adequate, but nothing here is going to distract the listener from lyrical beauty that Bazan injects into each stanza. “Deep green hills whose shoulders fade/ Into the gray tall wet grass/ Whose flesh makes fools of grazing sheep/ Whose fleecing makes a fool of me” read as stand alone poetry. But the true heart of “The Fleecing” comes towards the end, when Bazan admits that he “I can’t say it like I sing it/ And I can’t sing it like I think it/ And I can’t think it like I feel it/ And I don’t feel a thing/ Oh no—I don’t feel a thing.” In his seeming loneliness, Bazan reveals every human’s terror that they can never truly communicate what is in their heart: that no form of expression is adequate. If this is the case then maybe it doesn’t matter how happy you are, so long as you’re misunderstood.