From the whispery indie rock of 1998 debut It’s Hard to Find a Friend, David Bazan has always been the true orchestrator of three-piece rock outfit Pedro the Lion, arranging and playing the majority of guitar, drums, and bass while he narrates his life stories and intimate thoughts on religion, politics, and everything in between. However, around 2006, Bazan became insecure about his unconventional creative process of writing parts and finding bandmates to play it with him, leading to a shedding of the moniker for a solo career as David Bazan. After about a decade of testing new approaches, searching for new meaning (as he left the traditional Christian faith), and trying to do things on his own, Bazan finally came back to Pedro feeling more confident in the creative process that got him started. Phoenix begins a five-album journey through the cities Bazan has called home, as he searches for himself and for the companionship he’d missed in those solo years.
This longing is addressed from the very beginning as a young Bazan rides his “Yellow Bike” across the Phoenix streets, trying to cure “that little ache inside / My kingdom for someone to ride with.” As the narrative begins and the album settles in, Bazan’s voice is more full and powerful than ever, and the return to familiar writing processes pays off. Every note from every instrument expertly weaves together with pristine, yet organic movement, as if Bazan was a Baroque composer for string quartet.
“Model Homes” finds Bazan hoping with Springsteen-like wonder for an escape from his childhood circumstances as he booms, “I wanna not be lonely.” Meanwhile, the chiming guitars twinkle in the atmosphere, dreaming big and waiting for something new. But despite all the urges to run young people often feel, Bazan is keenly aware that to heal and move forward, parts of our past need to be faced head-on, not avoided. The anthemic “Clean Up” hammers on this point, reminding us to take ownership of the wrongs in our life, fix it, and move on.
To this end, Bazan apologetically tackles the fact that he’s been acting in bad faith for much of his life. This is something he renounced on Curse Your Branches track “Bearing Witness” and refers to again on “Powerful Taboo“, calling it “the Devil’s bargain, that to save your soul / Deny your senses / Be a stranger to yourself.” As much as it might pain him to admit it, on “Quietest Friend” he faces his younger, true self and apologizes for rejecting him, taking the Devil’s bargain, and allowing peers, parents, and other outside voices to define his persona. He’s now finally listening to himself, writing himself reminders of who he is and where he’s gone to make him so. This is the freeing purpose of Phoenix.
Now that he’s finally allowing himself to clearly look and listen to his life, he ponders snapshots of his childhood like Ebenezer Scrooge being led by the Ghost of Christmas Past. And despite the ordinariness of some of these vignettes, Bazan teases out deep emotion and meaning out of seemingly thin air. However, it’s never forced. On “Circle K“, he simply paints the picture of wanting to save up for a skateboard but blowing all his money on cheap candy and soda. It’s just a snapshot of ordinary life, but it is also a parable reminding us that the disposables life offers us always distract and barricade us from the thing we’re most longing for.
The short vignette of “Piano Bench” offers a beautiful childlike memory of his Christian family in the state of worship. Though Bazan has left the faith, he told Noisey in 2016, “I feel a tenderness toward [Christianity]. The tradition is more rich and meaningful than ever.” And on “Tracing the Grid“, he’s reminded of the stories his family used to tell around the table, and how the stories of family are just as important in the formation of self. One such story, the horrifying aftermath of a suicide-by-18-wheeler, follows on “Black Canyon“. Bazan’s takeaway from this story is that we’re all living the same story with the same hurts, depressions, and needs. With urgency, Bazan cautions the listener that if you carry the difficult stories of our lives by yourself, “the gorier the details, the more you walk alone in hell.”
This comes full circle to Bazan’s desire to get back playing with a band, and speaks to his attempt to be more open (as can be seen on Twitter), even with hard theological questions and existential crises. The closing trio of songs leads to more questions than answers. His reference to the story of 1 Samuel 3 indicates he’s still clearly working out his past with Christianity and his belief in God. He even ends the album on a question. Having once believed he had “graduated” from childhood beliefs, he still wonders, “Will there be no going back?” The rolling stone of Bazan’s mind continues to run, and there may not be any stopping it as life continues to throw more difficult questions every day. Even so, the journey is exciting and challenging, especially when you have “someone to ride with” along the way.