When Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan first heard “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” from the Flaming Lips’ 1999 acid-pop opus The Soft Bulletin, he had an artistic revelation. He immediately acquired a synthesizer and decided to radically revamp Pedro the Lion’s setup: from now on, only synths and live drums.
Although the band never ended up changing the way he intended it would, Bazan clung to his synthesizer obsession, apparently grooming it for another outlet. It spawned a new side project, christened Headphones, featuring Bazan, Tim Walsh (T.W. Walsh), and drummer Frank Lenz (Starflyer 59).
The group’s debut release Headphones is disarmingly simple and plainly direct: the entire record is comprised of synthesizers, Lenz’s deep-grooved drums, and Bazan’s vocals. The synths that Headphones employ are descendents of Asteroids and Pac Man; they bleep and bloop with an archaic familiarity, recalling the commercial prospects of the instrument in a stark, unadorned presentation. Although intrinsically mechanical, they also sound inappropriately emotional, like their depressed keys are set with pairs of droopy basset hound eyes. In accordance with (and sometimes smothering) Bazan’s lyrical subject matter (backstabbing, double standards, transparent facades, exploitation of faith), the synths do everything in their power to elicit palpable empathy from the listener. If they could physically drop you to your knees, make you pledge everlasting solidarity and understanding, they would.
That said, Headphones would have made a killer EP. Roughly half of the songs here are quite fantastic; in fact, they really do sound like Pedro the Lion, if its gear was replaced with machines. “Gas and Matches”, a drunkenly bobbing tune about a practical joke gone horribly awry, pulsates like slo-core Depeche Mode. “Shit Talker” moves begrudgingly like a New Wave funeral procession, Lenz’s stiff, bombastic drums shuffling under chord shifts that recall classical motifs. “Hot Girls”‘s synths and drums throb in skeletal tandem, Bazan wryly criticizing the commercial huckster. “Style is taking over and everybody knows / That songs are on their way out,” he deadpans, and then addresses a friend looking to make a quick buck: “I called to beg you not to write that stupid song / But as it happens now it’s burning up the charts / And breaking hot girls’ hearts as it masquerades as art”. Bazan’s greatest lyrical accomplishment (and Headphones‘ most subversively catchy song) is “Natural Disaster”, a viciously accurate assessment of the American government’s abuse of faith and fear, sung from the perspective of the president himself. Bazan’s narrator justifies his preemptive, self-serving sensibilities thus: “You would wait on the rapture or a natural disaster to come around / Or maybe a couple of airplanes could crash into buildings / And put the fear of God in you”. (“Major Cities”, the record’s other flagrantly political song, isn’t as successful melodically, though it may be creepier. Its narrator prepares his child for another disaster, advising her to “sit back and wait for the attacks” and admitting “I agree this doesn’t favor me / Still, bullies ought to get what’s coming”.)
As much as Headphones’ dirge-imbibed pop can seep under your skin, it can also occasionally grate upon it; the reticent formula of synths-drums-vocals is, from time to time, run into the ground, mostly at the expense of redundancy. The nasty “I Never Wanted You” perpetuates mechanical drones akin to the brainwashing codes in Strange Brew, sinking with its subject matter into a pit of loathing. “Hello Operator” and “Wise Blood” add nothing new or noteworthy to the proceedings; if they weren’t sequenced next to stronger songs, perhaps they wouldn’t provoke such lethargic indifference. And the closing track “Slow Car Crash” is the most depressing thing here, for it’s the only song on the record to find love, an expression that is manifested through the imminent doom of a horrible tragedy.
Still, there’s a wealth of gloomy goodness to be found within Headphones‘ 10 tracks, though you’ll most likely have to pick and choose. Bazan’s wrecked lyrics invite us to reconsider the emotional palette of synthesizers, and the record is notable for adhering to a set of creative specifications. Just like Bazan’s songs, Headphones is commendable for being both expressively unflinching and artistically unwavering.