“Perhaps home is not a place,” James Baldwin wrote, “but simply an irrevocable condition.” In a pungent new set of songs, the esteemed singer and self-chronicler David Bazan gazes back at a place he left a long time ago—and if he isn’t exactly reduced to a pillar of salt, neither does he sound like he ever fully metabolized the condition of his earliest home. The album, called Phoenix, is the first Bazan has made under his Pedro the Lion banner in some 15 years, the rising-from-the-ashes connotations of its title unavoidable and by no means inappropriate. But really the album is named for the city in Arizona, the source of Bazan’s preliminary childhood memories. Its songs—sketches, case studies, object lessons, remembrances that are really metaphors that are really glimpses of greater and invisible realities—play like a flickering highlight reel, some of the details washed out by time but many of them still burning in vibrant Technicolor splendor, formative and insoluble. Each one carries the weight of revelation: Of guilt from which Bazan was never assuaged; amends he never made; longings he never satisfied; epiphanies from which he never fully recovered. “How do you know when you’re finally home?” he asks on the closing “Leaving the Valley,” a sad goodbye from a man who still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. His album-length foraging through the family photo album might have ended with a Rosebud moment, but instead it reminds him of all the personal history he’s still reckoning with, even as it reckons with him.
Bazan recruited the wrecking crew of Erik Walters and Sean Lane to make Phoenix, both offering supple support, neither having appeared in any previous iteration of Pedro the Lion. Their presence is a tacit admission that this band has always really been a singer/songwriter vehicle for a guy who prefers his lyrics to spill out over the joyful squall of a power trio, and while you wouldn’t call the arrangements here imaginative, you could certainly call them primitive, howling, and loud, which turns out to be more than sufficient. Bazan leads the new cast through chunky riffs on “Clean Up” and pummeling thrash on “My Phoenix,” but the Pedro calling card is still slow-burners where the guitars scrape and the burr in Bazan’s voice conveys lyrics like bitter pills; listen to “Quietest Friend,” wave after wave of electric thrum, or to “Black Canyon,” which has the agitated gait of a man trying to work a pebble out of his shoe. The biggest formal shake-ups come with a pair of palette-cleansers: “All Seeing Eye,” awash in ghostly reverb, and “Piano Bench,” which returns to the synth adventures of Bazan’s Blanco and Care records, framing tight couplets with a hymnal austerity.
Sonically, it sounds more or less like nothing’s changed in the past decade and a half, but of course plenty has changed: This is the first Pedro the Lion album to be released in the wake of Bazan’s Curse Your Branches, his alleged divorce from the Christian dogma he was raised on. What Phoenix suggests is, maybe that severance isn’t so easy; these songs are tattooed with the religious vernacular of Bazan’s youth, and it sounds like he’s thrown the Almighty off his trail about as effectively as Flannery O’Conner’s Hazel Motes did. (Indeed, Phoenix may be exactly what O’Conner had in mind when she distinguished the Christ-haunted from the Christ-centered.) Consider the hard-charging “Clean Up,” where Bazan reflects that he sought answers in “eternity and a couple of other drugs,” a pithy de-conversion story that will resonate with anyone reared on a certain strain of fundamentalism; then again, you don’t need any kind of evangelical baggage to identify with the sing-song mantra to “clean up, clean up, clean up your stuff”—knowing full well that you can never wash, scrub, or Marie Kondo your life enough to feel innocent again. “Yellow Bike” captures the same freedom of movement that you hear in Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” only with a bicycle instead of an automobile as the means of escape. But it’s also a song about how it’s hard to find a friend, and about how “it is not good for man to be alone” (cf. Genesis 2:18). “My kingdom for someone to ride with,” Bazan moans, as though it’s as true today as it was when he was small. Both of those songs yearn, but others fester. Listen to “Quietest Friend,” where a young Bazan is a tongue-tied witness to injustice, his silent complicity still ringing in his ears after all this time, or to “Circle K,” where a prodigal son blows his inheritance on “candy and soda pop.” But the song that best captures the Phoenix aesthetic is “Model Homes,” about how the Bazan family used to browse track homes after church on Sunday—not to buy, but just to dream. The song highlights memories preserved in amber (“shuffling our shoes on brand new carpet/ freeze tag with static electricity”) but also lifelong desires that still exert a gravitational pull (“tired of where we live/ Hoping that it’s not if but when”). What Phoenix offers is a portrait of the artist still tangled in his past and still hooked on eternity; daring to dream there’s a home for him somewhere, and that he’ll know it when he sees it.