Pedro The Lion is back. Their new album, Phoenix, is out Jan. 18 via Polyvinyl Records. Maybe this is the news you’ve been waiting to hear for years. Maybe you’re asking, “Who is Pedro The Lion?” The moniker of Seattle songwriter David Bazan, Pedro The Lion has been absent since releasing Achilles’ Heel in 2004. But Bazan himself has not.
Bazan’s work over the last two decades has always benefited from his personal and open writing style. So open, in fact, that it sometimes can veer into uncomfortable territory. God, politics, depression, and vice – all topics often considered being taboo. If you lost track after Pedro The Lion, much has happened – including a loss of faith, new musical directions, and new existential muses swirling around in his head.
As such, the Bazan catalog is pretty massive at this point. If you haven’t been dutifully keeping up or were not made aware of his projects before, it can be overwhelming to try and jump in now. Where do you even start? We’re here to help.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through the many works of David Bazan and a suggested best route to listen through the records. The key word here is “suggested.” This route has been crafted to benefit listeners who are unfamiliar with Bazan’s story as well as to help best acclimate to the different genres and styles he’s utilized over the years.
A note: we’ve omitted the Christmas albums as well as records with his projects Lo Tom and Overseas. This is not a diss at those albums and are great works on their own, but we’re already working with a deep catalog as it is. If you make it through these albums and are still wanting more, I wholeheartedly encourage you to seek those out. However, there are a few EPs that we will suggest as “along the way” listens if you’re looking for additional context to a certain era.
So, let’s get into it.
Sometimes it just makes sense to start at the chronological beginning. But being Pedro The Lion’s debut LP isn’t the only reason I feel secure in recommending this album to begin your Bazan journey. It’s Hard To Find a Friend feels like a thesis statement for Pedro The Lion that the subsequent records are constantly challenging and complementing. Right away, Bazan is asking big questions about God and government. The solemn strums of “Secret of the Easy Yoke” against his aching lyricism are some of the finest songwriting of his career, and that’s before you even get to the power-pop finesse of “When They Really Get To Know You They Will Run.” Not just that, but this is also one of the lushest sounding recordings between all of Bazan’s work – he even cites it as his favorite record in the Pedro canon. To listen to these records is to get to know Bazan’s ever-changing perspective on the world and It’s Hard To Find A Friend beautifully provides the groundwork for everything that happens next.
Key Tracks: “Secret of the Easy Yoke,” “Big Trucks,” “Bad Diary Days,” and “When They Really Get To Know You They Will Run”
Along The Way...
Pedro The Lion - Whole EP (1997)
Pedro The Lion - The Only Reason I Feel Secure (1999)
I imagine I might get some flack for not including these as essential “album” releases, and I don’t mean to devalue their significance. Both the Whole and The Only Reason I Feel Secure EPs flesh out the soul seeking in Bazan’s music. Whole, in particular, contains some of his most directly religious songs like the pensive ballad “Lullaby” in which he calls out “You know I want to be like Jesus, but it seems so very far away.” Similarly, The Only Reason contains a cover of the classic hymn “Be Thou My Vision” – though the true standouts are the dark confessions of tracks like “Criticism as Inspiration,” finding Bazan wrestling with moral conflict and questioning his own intentions.
Whole Key Tracks: “Lullaby” and “Whole”
The Only Reason… Key Tracks: “Criticism as Inspiration” and “I Am Always The One Who Calls”
Admittedly, this is a pretty big leap to make from It’s Hard to Find a Friend. Consider it baptism by fire. Control is a major departure for Pedro The Lion from where the project started in numerous senses. First, this record is meant to be cranked loudly. Of all the records in the Bazan-sphere, Control is the one that most benefits from window-shaking volume. The distortion is maxed out throughout the record, though the tempo hardly goes above a slowcore dirge. It brings newfound darkness to Pedro pallet, something that’s echoed in the lyrics.
In what’s essentially his second attempt at a concept record (don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about Winners Never Quit), Control examines the follies of greed and capitalism through the story of a businessman making questionable choice after questionable choice. The record opens with “Options,” in which a couple walks along the beach wondering if their love is a sham and if they should get divorced.
It doesn’t get much brighter from there, quickly descending into the furious riffs of “Rapture” that compares an extramarital affair to the second coming of Christ. And yet, it still manages to get even darker! After a few upbeat swipes at commercial culture on “Indian Summer” and “Progress,” the album ultimately finds its lead character killed by his wife (“Priests and Paramedics”) and ends the record with a single thought: “Wouldn't it be so wonderful if everything were meaningless / But everything is so meaningful / And most everything turns to shit / Rejoice.”
Anecdotally, whenever I talk to die hard Pedro The Lion fans, this is often the album people are quickest to cite as their favorite. It’s part of what inspired a 2012 tour in which Bazan played the album in its entirety. It’s a far leap from the pained but earnest musings of It’s Hard to Find a Friend, which is part of what makes Control so captivating. It’s Bazan at his most vicious and incensed, yet there’s still a sense of a sought after greater good beneath all the grit.
Key Tracks: “Options,” “Indian Summer,” “Rapture,” and “Priests and Paramedics”
This is where things really start to change. In what was considered to be Pedro The Lion’s final album until the announcement of Phoenix, Bazan bows out with less certainty about the world around him than ever. The faith he’s sung about over the last seven years is starting to tatter, barely hanging on. It’s a crucial moment in the songwriter’s personal story – finding himself at a crossroads of both beliefs and career. The pent-up frustration of Control turns inward on Achilles’ Heel as Bazan takes a hard look at himself and the choices he’s made. Here he’s dealing less in the abstract and closer to the narrative of his own life.
Opening with the brooding epic “Bands With Managers” crosses over into meta territory as he sings of his then bandmate behind the wheel of the tour van, “I trust T. William Walsh and I’m not afraid to die.” It sets the tone for Bazan to really open up on where he’s at, like on the next track “Foregone Conclusions” in which he discusses his doubts of faith being scoffed at by fellow believers. The knife twists on “The Fleecing” where he opens up about his theological struggles, something he just can’t seem to shake. The bridge of that song breaks out into a sort of mantra – “I can't sing it like I think it / I can't think like I feel it / And I don't feel a thing /Why I still believe it.”
It’s also the first time we really start to hear Bazan talk about his drinking problem, which was paralleling his existential crises. “Keep Swinging” details a night of drinking that quickly devolves and falls apart into a sequence of embarrassing events. Album closer “The Poison” is even more brutal as it paints a picture of a man alone, his wife gone, and left only with his own alcoholism. For fans who didn’t get the memo that Bazan would transition to playing under his own name, this is the last we’d hear from Pedro The Lion for 15 years. I have to imagine that ending on such a troubling note would raise a lot of questions in this case. The next album on the guide gives some heavy, sobering answers.
Key Tracks: “The Fleecing,” “Foregone Conclusions,” “Bands With Managers,” and “The Poison”
Along The Way…
Pedro The Lion - Tour EP (2004)
David Bazan - Fewer Moving Parts EP (2007)
Before we fully dive into Bazan’s solo career, there are a couple more EPs that helps color the transition from Pedro The Lion to “David Bazan.” The 2004 Tour EP is essentially a live recording sampler, but it notably includes three exclusive covers, including Cat Power’s “Metal Heart,” Radiohead’s “Let Down,” and Randy Newman’s “Political Science.” All three songs speak to his emotional state and the direction he’d go in next, but more importantly, they just sound really, really good and I’d hate for you to miss out on them.
Fewer Moving Parts could use an entry of its own – it was my personal entry into Bazan and Pedro The Lion – but the ideas it covers are expanded on tenfold on the next release on the list. Still, the starkness and synth-rock aesthetics of the EP have Bazan sounding even more alone than ever. He even addresses his floundering faith on “Cold Beer and Cigarettes” and the end of Pedro The Lion on the stunning “Fewer Broken Pieces.”
Tour EP Key Tracks: “Metal Heart” and “Let Down”
Fewer Moving Parts Key Tracks: “Fewer Broken Pieces” and “Cold Beer and Cigarettes”
If you’re familiar at all with this record, you’ve likely heard it referred to as a “breakup album with God.” It’s a bit kitschy of a descriptor, but it’s not wrong. Curse Your Branches is Bazan’s firm break from Christianity. And it doesn’t go down easy. As with any breakup album, Bazan sounds heartbroken across the album’s 10 tracks. After making it through the Pedro The Lion discography – or the path I’ve been outlining for you here – the album hits hard. You feel the weariness because you’ve seen how much these thoughts have weighed on him. It doesn’t look too rosy on the other side, but there’s something cathartic about listening to someone come to terms with their entire worldview be flipped around.
There’s an argument to be made for this being Bazan’s best album, opening himself up in ways other songwriters may shy away from. It’s an intense and intentional listen, as he tastefully deconstructs what he used to think and why he’s leaving for another path. Suddenly the reasoning for ditching the Pedro The Lion name makes sense. He’s looking for a new start but still has to walk over the coals.
The critical look of the creation story on “Hard to Be,” the unhealthy coping mechanisms on “In Stitches” (as well as “Please, Baby, Please”), and the beautiful abstract metaphors of the title track offer much-needed closure for Bazan and the listener. While Christianity and religion will continue to come up in his work, Curse Your Branches forges a new path forward.
Key Tracks: “Hard To Be,” “Curse Your Branches,” “Please, Baby, Please,” and “In Stitches”
Where do you go after something like Curse Your Branches? With his celestial grievances aired, Bazan starts to take a harder look at the world around him on Strange Negotiations. Without a high-minded concept to hold to, Bazan feels looser and energized on his sophomore solo LP. “Wolves At The Door” kicks off with one of his gnarliest guitar riffs, howling on the chorus “You’re a goddamn fool and I love you.” Politics and economics take even more prominence on this LP.
While he still has a righteous fire roaring in his heart against greed and lopsided economics that benefit the right, he showcases a newfound gracefulness in his writing. You can feel it in the rallying cry of “People,” but especially so on tender ballads like “Virginia” and his first true love song, “Won’t Let Go.”
Key Tracks: “Wolves At The Door,” “People,” “Virginia,” and “Won’t Let Go”
So, why put this album from 2000 so late in the ordering? Is it because it’s bad or something? Well, no. Even though Bazan himself has voiced some dissatisfaction with the execution of this album, mostly due to self-imposed conceptual constraints, Winners Never Quit showcases Bazan at his most nuanced when it comes to tackling corrupt politics. The narrative isn’t quite as attainable as it is on Control, but the songs hold up regardless.
After spending time with Control and Strange Negotiations, you’ll be primed to take in Bazan’s heady and ambitious work on Winners Never Quit. Beyond just that, Winners Never Quit offers some of Bazan’s most diverse arrangements, opening with a rickey, solo acoustic performance and running through fiery rockers like “A Mind of Her Own.”
Key Tracks: “Slow And Steady Wins The Race,” “A Mind of Her Own,” and “Eye On The Finish Line”
Outside of Pedro The Lion, Headphones is one of the most cherished Bazan side-projects – even if that terminology doesn’t make much sense, given his projects are essentially always just him. The first (and only) Headphones opens up new sonic territory for Bazan, trading in guitars for keyboards. But the way he uses synthesizers on Headphones carries an intense physicality, blurting and howling instead of blissful, airy waves. It captures the same raw energy of Control in a totally different context.
Coming off the bleak ending of Achilles’ Heel, Headphones manages to find new types of darkness with the truly frightening opener “Gas & Matches” to the post-9/11 paranoia of “Major Cities.” But some of the albums most engrossing moments come with harsh personal assessments like that the brutal confessions and guttural hums of “I Never Wanted You” and the communal gossip of “Shit Talker.” A fan favorite with some of Bazan’s most haunting songwriting, it sets the stage for the work he’d begin nearly a decade later.
Key Tracks: “Shit Talker,” “I Never Wanted You,” “Natural Disaster,”
Maybe it’s cheating to put Blanco and Care together, but I find it hard to separate these two records. The most recent of Bazan’s solo works, these records see him returning to synthesizers. Blanco, in particular, captures the same alone-in-a-room feeling that was reflected on Headphones. Most of the songs that appear on these records were first released in the Bazan Monthly singles series – a monthly 7-inch sold via subscription directly to fans.
Reworked and reimagined, the songs thread together an image of a man who’s spent his career searching, found some answers, but ultimately left with a different set of questions. Having spent years touring off-and-on around the states to perform solo house shows, we begin to feel the weariness of the road and being away from his family start to come into focus.
The existential thoughts he’s turmoiled on aren’t gone, but now he’s starting to take a harder look at the world within arms reach. The synthesizer production – which is even more refined from this Headphones era – feels colder and more isolated than even his acoustic recordings, reflecting the recurring themes on the records. Care, which was recorded with the late Richard Swift, ends Bazan at a crossroads in his musical identities with “The Ballad of Pedro y Blanco.” It’s a warm ending, imagining a future with his wife where they figure it all out and the internal struggle between himself and Pedro The Lion is quieted down.
Blanco Key Tracks: “Both Hands,” “Trouble With Boys,” “Someone Else’s Bet,”
Care Key Tracks: “Care,” “Permanent Record,” and “The Ballad of Pedro Y Blanco”
Which all brings us finally to Phoenix. But, in all honesty, this could also be where you begin. Phoenix plays out like an origin story of Bazan. It gives you a glimpse into the person who would eventually write It’s Hard to Find a Friend and the experiences that led to his constant questioning and undefinable loneliness. There are many secrets to be unearthed and cherished hidden throughout the record that I don’t want to spoil, but if you’ve made it through all the records on this list you’ll reap those rewards.
Phoenix begins a new chapter in Bazan’s career while also giving a new beginning. The first of a planned five-album series, each record will focus on a different place significant to Bazan in his lifetime. Phoenix covers the first 12 years in Phoenix, Ariz, growing up in the suburbs and the church. It’s a return to the guitar rock sound he started with but with a new lease on the Pedro The Lion name. Listening to this record colors the whole Bazan catalog and opens up exciting new possibilities for his future writing.
Phoenix Key Tracks: For now, I’ll just recommend the singles “Yellow Bike” and “Model Homes” – this might be your first chance to experience a Pedro The Lion album as a blank slate. Seize that opportunity.
The Seattle band returns with a new album examining childhood loneliness and the weight carried around from the lead singer's former hometown.
David Bazan discusses taking up his old moniker once again, the next five Pedro albums, and utilizing his platform to bring attention to white male privilege and abuse against women.