Pedro the Lion: Achilles Heel (Jade Tree)

As the fourth full-length album produced by David Bazan, the mastermind behind this one-man band, it is every bit as bittersweet as its forerunners.

If the angry, disillusioned politics of Minor Threat and the hushed lyricism of the Red House Painters had a lovechild, it would be Pedro the Lion. I am hard-pressed to think of a comparable musician who so deftly combines the bitterest of sentiments with such beautiful, calming music. It is a strange dichotomy, but it has nonetheless worked seamlessly on every recording Pedro the Lion has released. The latest Achilles Heel is no exception. As the fourth full-length album produced by David Bazan, the mastermind behind this one-man band, it is every bit as bittersweet as its forerunners.

In rebound from last year’s heavy-handed concept album Control, which detailed the violent collapse of a failed marriage, Bazan has resolved to create a lighter album of topical songs not centered on a theme. He has said that this time around he wants people to hear how much fun he had recording. Maybe I’m missing something, but this album seems anything but light and fun. On the contrary, it may be even bleaker than his previous recordings, if that is possible. How Bazan found fun in writing songs about paralysis, alcoholism and familial dysfunction is beyond me.

These heavy themes and more are the topics that Bazan deals with on Achilles Heel, comprising an album that is as gorgeous as it is devastating. Bazan again finds that inexplicable balance between beauty and horror, lulling us with heartbreakingly tender melodies as he stabs us to the core. His words float on such gentle waves that it’s easy to lose yourself in the music, but cloud nine evaporates abruptly when you realize what he’s singing about, and you’re dropped from a cushy heaven into hard reality. Bazan’s lyrics are understated, their simplicity making them poignant; the ideas that novelists spend hundreds of pages trying to put across, Bazan can say in one sentence. And he’ll break your heart doing it.

The lyrics detail a number of hard pills to swallow, and none of them are by any means light; listening to them, it’s hard to imagine why Bazan could have possibly thought that the fun of writing them would shine through. The track “I Do” paints in just a few lines the vivid portrait of a marriage deadened by responsibility. The lines “And when his tiny head emerged from blood and folds of skin/I thought to myself if he only knew he would climb right back in” are unsettling enough to knock you from any false impressions that the accompanying sweet music might have given. In “The Poison,” Bazan takes the position of an alcoholic mourning the end of a relationship, a requiem expressed in lines like “My old man always swore that hell would have no flame/Just a front row seat to watch your true love pack her things and drive away.” Easy listening this is not. Perhaps the most sobering song on the album, and one that made me physically wince despite the deceptively soothing sound of the music, is “Transcontinental,” about a man rendered paralyzed in a vehicle crash and what he thinks as he lies in the aftermath. The imagery of twitching limbs and bodies laid waste, along with the lines “The luxury of having been spared the hard part/You’d think would be enough for me to pull this off/But I’m left to bleed to death” make up one of the most disturbing songs I’ve heard in recent memory. It is in this way that Pedro the Lion puts self-proclaimed hardcore bands to shame, without even raising the decibel level above an appropriate volume.

Yet somehow Pedro the Lion’s music is always so nice to listen to, despite the pain mixed into this pleasure. The lushness of the music may make the message all the more poignant, no matter how cynical or brutally ironic it might be. Achilles Heel is both heaven and hell in one, both good and evil, both beauty and sorrow. David Bazan has figured out that these dichotomies are not always mutually exclusive, that in real life there is sometimes disorder concealed within what seems beautiful.
— Anne Valente

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