David Bazan, the creative center of the otherwise member-switching Pedro the Lion, has some heavy-handed language for the general public. But after his fourth proper album, I wonder if he’s chosen the correct medium for his message.
On works like 2002’s Control, he often sabotaged his own music with lyrics that, while valiant in their critique of corporate greed and modern morality, bordered on being absurdly uber-poetic and self-righteous. Bazan is a devout Christian, so you might expect morality to be quite an issue for Pedro the Lion. But I have never been entirely forgiving of musicians who sacrificed good music for their lyrics. Despite attempts to be less serious on Achilles’ Heel, there isn’t even too much good music to sacrifice.
You can’t blame Bazan for lack of effort. If there’s ever been one steady advantage for Pedro the Lion, it was that his music always carried an air of sincerity and warmth. Even with the most serious and saddening lyrics, songs remained enjoyable to hear, innovative or not. Achilles’ Heel isn’t much different. Most of the melodies are catchy, the production is solid and Bazan’s voice has heart and power, sounding almost like Coldplay’s Chris Martin after getting some grit kicked in his teeth.
The album begins confidently enough: “Bands With Managers” may not sound amazing, but it is a pleasant song that bodes well for upcoming tracks. The next piece, “Foregone Conclusions,” is the best thing about Achilles’ Heel. Bazan’s voice explodes alongside his guitars from the get-go, and while the song reeks of a Tom Petty rip-off, it’s also a rip-off that Petty would likely punch himself for having never written. “Conclusions” trades in the band’s typically pompous lyrics for simple yet effective pop lines, and comes off as a success.
But it’s all downhill from there. “The Fleecing,” like most Pedro songs, has some nice harmonies, but I got the anxious feeling that, though Bazan isn’t writing bad songs, chances are hell spend the rest of the album playing essentially the same two songs over and over again. Which is exactly what happens. Over the eleven tracks on Achilles, there are slow and mildly quiet songs, and then there are slightly faster rockers. This would be excusable for most bands, except that Bazan falls back on the same old chord changes and melodies far too often. There’s about ten minutes of good material here, and it’s stretched out into a very monotonous forty minutes.
To make things worse, Bazan still plagues himself with overdone metaphors and hammy writing. “Arizona” uses U.S. states to describe a sad love triangle, but Bazan’s takes it all too far and evokes absurdity rather than emotion: “New Mexico has always hated California / Though he knew that Arizona wore the pants.” Other tracks contain their own failed poetry. “A Simple Plan” critiques both capitalism and socialism but falls victim to cliched declarations like, “We fought for a decade corruption and greed / It gave me a purpose, a reason to breathe.”
I really want to cheer for Bazan; he can be a sincere songwriter, and he has a knack for good melodies. He just needs to expand his sound. I’ve tried hard to refrain from making a pun about the title, but it’s impossible to ignore how Achilles’ Heel truly is destroyed by its own weakness: derivativeness. All the tracks on the album are solid, but you know something is wrong when you get deja vu during every song and continuously check your CD player to see if it’s on repeat.