David Bazan's songs are like the best oranges your organic corner market has to offer: They're substantive, sharp, and acidic, and they enrich the hell out of your wretched being, yet you can't help thinking they'd taste a little better with some ice cream or vodka. David Bazan's voice is like that ornery, extended, monotonous, hands-off meow you get when you pat an arthritic 20-year-old tabby's tush. David Bazan's lyrics are like Nick Cave's or Johnny Cash's—if they'd pause to subtly admonish their murderous, marauding antiheroes.
These traits are connotatively, collectively "good"; they are not connotatively, collectively "rock and fuckin' roooooooll!" They are why, when we think of the Seattleite's musical alter ego, Pedro the Lion, the moniker evokes not ferocity and velocity but an endearing, reliably manufactured . . . well . . . plushness. The truth behind the evocation: Bazan is a distortion of the lion famously depicted in parable, quivering alone in a cave, a thorn stuck in his paw, yet fully prepared to devour your patronizing ass the second you deem him harmless.
So goes Pedro the Lion's deceptively folky fifth full-length, Achilles Heel (Jade Tree), a retreat from penultimate album Control's perky, hedonistic overdrive and an embrace of the plaintively moaned "secular sermons" that made 2000's Winners Never Quit a modest indie classic. "I felt like we were an emo band," Bazan rues in noting the U-turn away from Control's radio-friendly unit shimmy. "I write songs. I just wanna focus on that, rather than being all amped up. Actually, I think Jade Tree was pretty bummed when they got [Achilles], because they wanted another rock record."
Bazan, the cred-and-culture cops are quick to point out, is a born-again Christian, and his faith is integral to—if not always clearly visible in—his music; he also employed the word "cum" thrice on Control (OK, the first time is "the seed and the spill," but you get the drift). He's more than a little weary of explaining or justifying these so-called contradictions; Achilles' "Foregone Conclusions" does the trick indirectly when he sighs over an infectious hiccupped strum, "You were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord to hear the voice of the Spirit begging you to shut the fuck up."
It's a tough (ahem . . . ) cross to bear. Consider all the nonbeliever spit and ink that's been spilled over The Passion of the Christ, particularly from people who haven't even seen it. The prevailing agnostic/atheist take: "Why should I dip my toes in art that's even remotely tainted with religiosity? I already know what I'm going to get." Bazan understands, even though he champions Fugazi's body-rock politic far more than, say, Jars of Clay's.
"The fact is, I probably tend to think about God and religion more than some people do," he shrugs. "Some people don't care. They're just like, 'Those issues have no bearing on my life at all. I don't want to hear from somebody who's obsessed with those things.' This Death Cab tour"—Pedro opened for the band on the jaunt that ends at the Showbox on Thursday—"was an attempt at playing for some of those people, who, after the show, without saying it, were saying, 'I would never have given your band the time of day ever . . . but I liked it.'"
What were they missing? Literate, vivid narratives about lust, betrayal, and self-loathing from a man who admires (and emulates) Randy Newman's ability to mock under the guise of sincerity. Lord-core this isn't, but Bazan's tales are hardly soulless. Instead of acting on impulses of infidelity, he simply wrote a song about a man who did ("Options"), then discussed the fictional/autobiographical divide with his wife. His conscience isn't merely relegated to all things marital, either. Last December, Bazan stood in front of a packed, antsy teen audience at Waxwing's Old Firehouse reunion to patiently read a sea scroll's worth of text scourging the Bush administration and encouraging youth voter registration; he worries that, under the influence or not, his frequent midset anti-Dubya rants come off as self-serving soapbox rhetoric. Unfortunately, this selflessness often shadows Bazan's self-deprecating dark humor; on Achilles' tongue-in-cheek, keep-it-real opening dirge, "Bands With Managers," he includes himself among the titular rockers "with messy hair and smooth white faces" who "are going places."
"After I wrote that song, we actually got a manager ourselves," Bazan muses. "The question came up, 'Well, so should we still put that song on there?' and I was like, 'Hell yeah!' I mean, you have to make money to be able to continue to tour, unless you're a trust-fund kid. But people get caught up in being a successful band. That's all peripheral stuff. ["Bands"] could be about us, too, that if we weren't careful we could stab our friends in the back to get ahead."
'Nuff said. No Cain and Abel joke necessary.
Pedro the Lion play the Showbox with Death Cab for Cutie and Ben Kweller at 9 p.m. Thurs., May 6. $17.50 adv./$20.