The Candidate

Pedro the Lion holds a referendum on the state of the soul with the muted rock opera Winners Never Quit

You've seen the polls and you know what you need to do. There are only two weeks between you and losing. So quit trying to hold down the boiling pot behind your skull and start thinking like a winner. Your running mate is antsy. The volunteers look like they've all been punched in the stomach. Loosen your tie, pick up the phone, and make a choice. Dial the number in your pocket. Set up a meeting. Buy the election.

The songwriter who has dreamed up this scenario sees his candidate's decision as moral, existential. David Bazan is a 24-year-old born-again Christian who took his band's name, Pedro the Lion, from a character he made up for a children's story. He's an adult innocent, like Brian Wilson, singing earnestly and sweetly about adult sins. And as he narrates, he marshals the words with such unpretentious grace that you don't care whether his protagonist is buying the silence of an illicit lover or purchasing an illegal favor. "Power can be such a tease," Bazan testifies in "Simple Economics." "You're always wanting more. It's good to know that just like sex it can be paid for."

This story, from the new album Winners Never Quit (Jade Tree), might sound overly dramatic in a sophomore-fiction-workshop sort of way. But Bazan puts his drama in the lyrics and story to propel his minimalist drone-pop and folky acoustic reveries. While singing and playing all the instruments, he's flipping the rules of the ragged old punk script, where simple, vague lyrics are usually given seeming profundity through noisy backing.

If the album were a movie, the dilemma described above would occur by the end of the first reel, establishing our Ur-candidate--let's call him Al Walker McBradley--as a big fan of Jesus (aren't they all?) who nonetheless remains a few beads short of a rosary.

As the album proceeds, McBradley commits evils far more cinematic than any real presidential hopeful would bother with. As "A Mind of Her Own" climaxes with some Unwound-style guitar distortion, McBradley wails at his wife--about to blow the whistle on his scandalous secret--"You put down that telephone/You're not calling anyone." The next song finds him fretting over her bloodstains on the carpet.

You don't have to follow the synopsis of this pulpy little matinee to be moved by the soundtrack. Bazan assembles complex song structures, then lets his voice drift through them like a Steadicam, singing like Lou Barlow if he lingered over the notes more, or Kurt Cobain if he turned down the distortion in his throat. The album's tale of bribery, sex, and murder is spun with such tenderness that your ear might beckon for love songs. On Pedro the Lion's debut, It's Hard to Find a Friend (from 1998, when Bazan still used other musicians), one of the characters finds a movie ticket stub belonging to his girlfriend, then learns it was to a film she had never mentioned before--a quiet betrayal.

Reached over the phone from Seattle, Bazan admits, remarkably, that he has never heard Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade, a reference point for countless postpunk narrative albums and a monument of cultural disillusionment. He is a Fugazi fan, which seems somewhat telling. Like that band, and like his friend, singer-songwriter Damien Jurado, Bazan prefers all-ages shows. (He'll play the Foxfire with bandmates he has been practicing with for the past year: drummer Trey Many, of His Name is Alive, and bassist T.W. Walsh.) Yet Winners Never Quit kicks its righteousness without fury, like a Low record on 45. Call it fast trance rock for choirboys, or a pop prayer for deliverance from greed. Prayers can never be cynical, unless you're Pedro the Elephant or Pedro the Donkey. If this is DIY for the Gore era, bring it on.

 
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