The title of ‘Phoenix’ is apt for this record in more ways than one. The obvious associations of rising from the ashes certainly fit. Lead singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist David Bazan is returning to the name Pedro The Lion for the first time in fifteen years. But the title also fits in a much more literal sense: it refers to Bazan’s hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.
‘Phoenix’ is about new beginnings, then, but also coming full circle. This is reflected well in the lyrics, from ‘Yellow Bike’ recalling childhood bike rides to ‘Clean Up’s anthemic affirmations of a life getting back on track. Pedro The Lion never go full stadium-rock here, despite singalongs on tracks like ‘Clean Up’, but that’s hardly a problem. A little subtlety works better for Bazan’s introspective writing and emotional delivery, and it’s refreshing to hear an artist who recognises you can produce heartfelt work without needing to hammer his point home with whispered vocals and creaking acoustic arrangements. Unfortunately, the record does lack personality at some key moments. Even in Pedro the Lion’s first incarnation, from 1998 to 2004, Bazan arranged almost all instrumental parts and played many himself. Such meticulous composition is both a blessing and a curse. The songs are precise, controlled, and to the point, but they miss some of the intangible ‘soul’ you get from true creative collaboration.
Still, these qualms are minor – not least because solving them might compromise the album in other areas. Phoenix is an enjoyable and rewarding listen, with some seriously interesting lyrics and a compelling theme. “I traded my own wisdom“, Bazan sings on ‘Quietest Friend’, “for a jury of my peers“. Perhaps reflecting anxieties over collaboration, the strength of this line alone is enough to make you keen to see where Bazan’s wisdom leads him next.