Pedro the Lion

Monday, May 6, 8 p.m., sold out 

Cat’s Cradle Back Room, Carrboro 

Released in January, Phoenix was the first Pedro the Lion record since 2004’s Achilles Heel. But while the name refers to both the city and the mythical creature that rose from the ashes, it’s not like Pedro really ever went away. With a rotating cast of extras, PTL was always David Bazan, and “disbanding” merely meant walking away from the name—and his sizable Christian fan base. 

Last decade, PTL’s brand of introspective, earnest indie rock had risen to both critical and popular success among the youth-group set. Bazan’s wrote about faith in a way that resonated: He wanted his to be stronger, but he had doubts. He wanted to feel God’s love, but the church’s sanctimony could be more pervasive. 

It wasn’t hard to see him falling from grace. The seven years between the debut Whole EP, which concludes with an instrumental called “Hymn,” and Achilles, which concludes with a confessional about Bazan’s drinking problem, chart an almost linear progression from Pentecostal upbringing to agnostic adulthood. Along the way came 2002’s Control, a critically acclaimed, biting critique of American culture and capitalism.  

Bazan shelved PTL in 2006 because he wanted to distance himself from the Christian scene. Going solo and outing himself as a nonbeliever cost him fans and sales, but it also led to two of his most poignant records: 2009’s Curse Your Branches, essentially a breakup letter to Jesus, and 2011’s Strange Negotiations, a rebuke of revanchist conservatism. Both felt of a piece with Pedro the Lion. His last two solo efforts have eschewed guitars for the downtempo synths and drum machines of his Headphones project

So in that sense, Phoenix is a return to form—a three-piece, straight-ahead rock album. But thematically, it doesn’t revert to PTL’s religious themes, though they often linger in the background, in lines like, “I tried eternity and a couple of other drugs.” 

Instead, Bazan writes about growing up in Arizona. The album’s thirteen songs are vignettes about the small pleasures, mundane memories, and lingering regrets of his childhood: his first bike, the Circle K down the street, trying to sneak secular music. He turns the camera on himself and his own shortcomings: his desire for freedom, which leads to loneliness; his need for acceptance, which hurts others. Wistful and sad, joyful and nostalgic, and littered with lyrical callbacks to earlier PTL and Bazan songs, it’s almost an origin story, told with enough remove to see that origin for what it was, for better or worse.