May 25, 2004
PEDRO THE LION [I]ACHILLES HEEL[/I] REVIEW
Public opinion of Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan seems to be divided into two basic camps. People are likely to see him either as a genius or a man who’s completely lost his grip on what the word “appropriate” means. I see a little of each. I see a genius, or at least a very unique man, who’s becoming ever more comfortable with expressing his own idea of appropriateness. As a result, Achilles Heel is totally uninhibited, perhaps, depending on your perspective, to a fault.
The first noteworthy aspect of Achilles Heel is that, unlike Bazan’s last two full-lengths, it’s not a concept album. In true Pedro fashion, each song tells its own mini-story, but this time they’re not pieces of a larger tale. In one way, it’s a bit refreshing, because it offers the listener a chance to simply listen to a straight-up album instead of feeling the pressure of diving into a heady piece of conceptual art. Still, a coherent storyline with each album has become one of Pedro’s identifying characteristics, and it is, at least somewhat, missed here.
Bazan’s characteristic sardonic wit shows through immediately, as his low voice labors through the opening lines of “Bands With Managers”: “Bands with managers are going places / Bands with messy hair and smooth, white faces.” Bazan also wastes no time in introducing the album’s other recurring elements. In the first song alone we see Bazan reaching for a higher vocal register than normal, the aforementioned wit and a fondness for careful descriptions of sickness, death and other such things that is perhaps more pronounced than ever. Though we only catch a glimpse in the first song, statements like “Vans with fifteen passengers are rolling over” are no less unsettling than any of the other statements made on the album.
Let’s back away for a moment and note that Bazan has always been a skillful commentator on life and the human condition. Winners Never Quit and Control are two of the most riveting and appropriately disturbing stories of depravity ever put to tape. The only reason the unpleasant descriptions on Achilles Heel seem more pronounced is that many of them appear to be largely unnecessary. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, however.
In “Keep Swinging,” we’re given the tale of a drunken man who passes out, gets conned by a cabdriver and subsequently leaves a few bodily fluids in his hotel bed. On one hand, it could serve as a stern warning of the troubles that accompany inebriation. On the other hand, it’s a tad bit more than you might want to hear. Some of Bazan’s best points have been made by his inclusion of the gory details, however. It all depends on your perspective.
Bazan’s peak of unpleasantness is found in “Transcontinental,” a bizarre first-person account from the mind of a man whose legs have been severed by a train. It’s either a fancy way of highlighting our laziness and lack of motivation or just a quirky story about severed limbs. Whatever Bazan’s purpose, and despite the song’s gruesome premise, I’m intrigued.
Most notably, however, Bazan has finally crafted an album of musical arrangements that stand more than an arm’s length apart from his other material in terms of style. Almost every song is much brighter and at least slightly more upbeat than songs on previous albums. Even “Transcontinental” is deceptively peppy; so much so, in fact, that it’s one of the album’s catchiest pieces. Sorry to make a tired observation, but it truly sounds as if the band had fun making this recording.
“Keep Swinging” is the crowning achievement on Achilles Heel. It exists in a musical realm completely separate from all of Bazan’s other work. It opens with a swaggering, liquid bassline and equally smooth drums before Bazan enters with an uncharacteristically flashy and confident melody. The real stereotype-shatterer, however, comes when the instruments drop out and the vocals explode into full harmony. This happens a few other times throughout the song and shows just how far Pedro the Lion is capable of traveling from their typical sound. If only the rest of the songs were as daring.
All things considered, will this album change anyone’s opinion of Pedro the Lion and David Bazan? Probably not. The longtime Pedro fans will undoubtedly be content with Bazan’s offbeat stories and astute observations, and the rest of the world will still think he’s just a bit odd. But, all things considered, it’s really not a bad little album.
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