The Lion King of Kings

Pedro the Lion sings about Christianity, but not as a bludgeon for proselytization

"You were / too busy steering / the conversation towards the Lord / to hear / the voice of the Spirit / begging you to shut the fuck up," Dave Bazan sings on "Foregone Conclusions," the second track on the new Pedro the Lion album, Achilles Heel. Thus does Bazan confront those who take issue--for good or ill--with his avowed Christianity: Why are you making such a big deal of this?

Christianity-on-the-sleeve is what passes for peccadillo in indie rock songwriting. Religious sincerity represents a competing value system to the jaundiced affectation with which independent rock is replete--"Age of Irony" and all that rot. Which is why Bazan is perpetually made to answer for the incongruity he represents: How can you be a Christian, by definition a believer, working in a milieu defined by skepticism and disbelief?

The answer is evident with but one listen to any Pedro the Lion release. Bazan's Christianity, lyrically prominent though it may be, is not used as some bludgeon for proselytization like one might find on a mainstream "Christian rock" album (see Creed). Instead, it's used as a moral framework in much the same way that Bruce Springsteen uses his blue-collar background.

This is why Bazan's faith isn't, for the most part, off-putting to the non-believer. People who instinctively jam their fingers in their ears at any mention of "The Lord" (unless it comes out of the mouth of Will Oldham or Johnny Cash) constitute the bulk of Pedro the Lion's fans. This is because, as Bazan's bandmate Tim Walsh puts it, "(what) Dave tries to do is get people to think, as opposed to ingesting propaganda." Walsh iterated further in an interview with writer Tim McMahan earlier this year: "We're firm believers in giving people something to think about so they can come to their own conclusions. I can confirm that Dave doesn't consider Pedro the Lion to be a Christian band."

Bazan himself is more circumspect. "I don't prefer it (the focus on his Christianity), but then again I do write about faith and struggles with faith and things like that, so it's not something that I can validly complain about, but I suppose if I had my druthers, people would interact with Pedro the Lion like they would with any other band ... and not really base it on their perceptions of my faith, which is funny because even the idea of 'my Christianity' is a little bit weird. I mean, we all go through certain ideological shifts, I think, and I hope we all do as we're learning all the time."

On Achilles Heel, Bazan creates an atmosphere akin to that of a Raymond Carver short-story collection, with all its attendant attention to dark themes. (It should be noted that it thereby has much in common with the Bible as well.) Sounding like a morbid and morose Jackson Browne, Bazan touches on (in no particular order) suicide, the urge to return to the womb, hell, alcoholism and horrific train accidents. Little, if any, redemption is to be found among the bleak ruin. Even when Bazan addresses his faith in the form of a sort-of apology, he's left grasping. On "The Fleecing," Bazan sings "I could buy you a drink / I could tell you all about it / I could tell you why I doubt it, and why I still believe / But 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 / And who shall I blame for this sweet and heavy trouble? / For every stupid struggle? / I don't know."

The writing and recording process on Achilles Heel was somewhat divergent from previous albums. For one thing, bassist Tim Walsh was made a full-time member and thereby more of a contributor. (Excepting touring, Pedro the Lion had heretofore been a "band" in name only; Bazan was a de facto solo artist.) This has made the process a full-band effort. Says Bazan, "Both Tim and I do the majority of all writing with four-tracks and the computer, where you just sit (by yourself) and try to come up with stuff, but then when the song is fleshed out and the parts (for other instruments) are being written, that's when it becomes much more collaborative. Me and Tim and Ken (Maiuri), we just sit down ... and interact with one another when writing lyrics and melodies. One of us will have a part that we've been working on for a while, and maybe we can't see the forest for the trees, and we'll say 'Is this any good?' and one of the other guys will be like, 'Yeah, that's awesome, but instead of ending like that, what about this?'"

Other changes are afoot for Pedro the Lion. Most significantly, Bazan will become a father some time around the end of September, and juggling parenthood with making a living on the road may prove to be tricky.

"Well, obviously for a month before and after the due date, we won't be going on any road trips. And once the baby is born, instead of doing 80 dates a year in 20-show segments, we'll go out for 10 days at a time, to break it up." Bazan is also prepared for how fatherhood might affect his songwriting. "The effect that it's having on the songwriting is imperceptible at this point, but when the kid comes out, I imagine it's gonna have a profound effect on my psyche, and I imagine also that that'll directly affect the songwriting process."

Ultimately, the focus on the Christian orientation of Pedro the Lion tends to distract from Bazan's unique perspective. Christianity is a red herring, given that it's but one factor in a mélange of influences that results in a distinctive "voice" (in the non-vocal sense). It ends up becoming a mirror in that it tells more about the person reacting to it than it does about Bazan himself. And Bazan himself is too busy writing (and procreating) to get too wrapped up in it.

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