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May 2002 Pick of the Month

Control
Artist: Pedro the Lion
Label: Jade Tree
Length: 10 tracks, 40:21

From listening to all the previous Pedro the Lion albums, I can make a few characterizations about the music that singer/lyricist/guitarist Dave Bazan makes: it sounds just right, it does a masterful job of storytelling, and it is controversial. The new album Control lives up to all of these standards to an even higher degree than any previous Pedro the Lion CD.

For those who have missed out on Pedro the Lion all these years, they are a three-piece band from Seattle who have been described as emo, folk, and rock. Somewhere in between those genres is where the music generally lies, normally subdued and melancholy, fitting perfectly with Bazan’s voice. Dave Bazan is a Christian and this has a natural effect on the lyrics. However, Pedro the Lion’s lyrics are FAR from your average Christian band. The songs are incredibly honest, dark, controversial, and sometimes even depressing—but they always serve to make an incredible point.

The music on Control is a progression from Winners Never Quit. The songs have a tendency to include much more distorted guitar and upbeat rhythm than Pedro fans may be used to. This is not at all a bad thing. “Penetration” is an incredible rock song in its own right and the breakdown of the musically and emotionally heavy ballad “Second Best” conjures up reminders of Stavesacre.

On Control, as on the previous outing Winners Never Quit and the debut Whole, Bazan has penned a story to song. This time the story is a bit more subtle, however and takes quite a few listens to piece together. Even before the story is understood, the songs all are terrific on their own, a quality that Winners Never Quit didn’t quite pull off.

This time the character has bought into the idea of corporate America in a heartbreaking way. In “Options”, the protagonist is walking on a beach with his wife when he lets out the preposterous words “I would never divorce you without a good reason/ though I may never have one, it’s still good to have options/ But for now I need you.” As the song proceeds we realize that this encounter was imagined and never happened, but it paves the way for the selfishness contained in the actions of the protagonist throughout the story. In “Rapture” we see the immediate results of this selfishness as the protagonist becomes involved in an affair. “Penetration” shifts to a full on look at corporate America, the possible culprit for the protagonist’s problems, and makes the painfully honest assessment “If it isn’t making dollars then it isn’t making sense/ If you aren’t moving units then you’re not worth the expense/ If you really want to make it you had best remember this/ If it isn’t penetration then it isn’t worth a kiss.” The song “Indian Summer” shows how the protagonist’s mindset may affect his children and in fact how he himself may have become set on this “American dream”: “All the experts agree you ought to start them young/ that way they’ll naturally like the taste of corporate cum.” “Progress” allows a snapshot of the problems going on in the protagonist’s family while “Magazine” looks at the foolish idea of beauty equaling success. In “Rehearsal”, the protagonist’s adulterous affair is discovered by his wife: “It’s priceless when you say you have to work late/ When we both know you’re at a motel.” The protagonist is humbled and in “Second Best” he comes to grips with his failure, yet returns to adultery nonetheless: “Second best/ Oh, second best I can learn to live with this/ ‘Cause I really need a lift/ After all what’s wrong with second best?” Realization is made in “Priests/Paramedic” that “We’re all gonna die/ could be fifty years, could be tonight.” All of the success that the protagonist hoped to build up is lost as “Rejoice” says, “Everything’s so meaningful/ But mostly everything turns to sh**.”

The topics that Control centers on are difficult ones to digest. Specifically with the theme of adultery running throughout the story, many Christians may be offended by this album. It’s important to remember that this is not a “Christian album”, but it is made by a Christian. Dave Bazan is trying to get a message across to listeners that digs to the heart of the problem, and doesn’t simply focus on the symptom (which many Christians surely will focus on themselves when they hear some of the colorful language and suggestive lyrics on Control). For the listener who can look past the outside of Control and take a look at its substantive inside, there awaits an incredible album to be consumed; an album that could almost be considered perfect. That’s right ladies and gentlemen; Pedro the Lion has outdone themselves once again.

Trae Cadenhead 4/14/2002

When I think of Pedro The Lion, two words come to mind... Thomas Kinkade, the so-called "Painter of Light&trade." His paintings are idyllic little settings that usually involve a lighthouse, small cottage, or gazebo set in a perpetual springtime where it's always Sunday morning. There's usually a pond or creek nearby, and gardens just bursting into bloom. Everything is bathed in a soft, tranquil light. When looking at one, you're practically overwhelmed by how right, perfect, and clean everything is. 

Not content with just painting such a world, Kinkade set about translating his canvas into the real world. The result: a gated community of homes inspired by his paintings, a place where "families thrive, children grow up and memories are made". I look at these houses, which look so pretty and elegant, but feel so pre-fabricated and self-righteous, and I wonder if they're what David Bazan had in mind when he sings "On the one side, the bad half live in wickedness/And on the other side... the good half live in arrogance" ("Magazine"). 

Described as a tale of a "hyper-modern marriage gone wrong," Control is another concept album that reveals the lives of the supposedly righteous for the moral travesties they really are. It's a logical progression from Winners Never Quit, and a far stronger, more aggressive album. Indeed, songs like "Magazine," "Priests And Paramedics," and the crushing "Second Best" are some of the best Bazan has ever written. And lyrically, it's Bazan at his darkest and most intense. 

The album opens up with a romantic vignette - a walk on the beach - that takes a sadder turn when Bazan sings "I could never divorce you without a good reason... but for now I need you". With such pillow talk, it should come as no surprise that the affair is in full swing by the next song. "Rapture" may raise some Christian eyebrows with its equation of physical lust to spiritual fulfillment, but it's a perfect picture of just how low these characters have sunk to bring meaning to their lives. 

Over the next couple of songs, Bazan deliberately picks apart the veneer of these peoples' lives. The corporate power trip of "Penetration," the dysfunctionalisms of "Indian Summer" and "Progress," the anger of "Rehearsal." But just when we're righteously indignant, he saves his deepest cuts for Christian legalism ("Magazine"), something that's always been Bazan's sweet spot. 

Here, he draws a perfect metaphor for the difference between grace and the law when he sings "I feel the darkness growing stronger as you cram light down my throat". Such a line nicely sums up Paul's theology that the law (which Christians are so quick to enforce) is often that which brings out the sin in people. The very thing that should save them is what ends up driving them towards the album's tragic end.  

Like all Pedro The Lion albums, Control has powerful, honest songs... but no easy answers, if any answers at all. Even those who should have them don't, instead starkly claiming "We're all gonna die/Could be twenty years, could be tonight/Lately I have been wondering why/We go to so much trouble/To postpone the unavoidable/And prolong the pain of being alive" ("Priests And Paramedics"). 

Bazan's refusal to wrap everything up in a clean little package, something that seems to be a prerequisite these days, gives his songs their impact and intensity. His lyrics may be seedier this time around - those semen and shit references are bound to be hits with the youth group - but they also paint a brutally honest portrait of lives who need grace and forgiveness, and yet constantly turn away, or are turned away, from it.  

Some reviewers are saying how nice it is that Bazan is finally writing songs that don't tackle issues of faith. I find that amusing, because Control  tackles those issues with as much gusto as anything else Bazan has done, if not more so. The themes he has always written about - human depravity, Christian legalism, and ultimately, our unquenchable need and desire for God's grace - are as prevalent as before. His words may be a little blunter, his references to Divinity a little more oblique, but Bazan is as soul-searching as ever. 

My job just recently moved to some new offices in the "suburbs" of Lincoln, for lack of a better term. I see the new developments, the whitewashed houses and perfect yards. They may not be as picturesque as a Kinkade development, but the desire is the same: to create a safe, idealized community (not unlike the Church). 

But how many of the people living in those houses are alcoholics, abusers, pedophiles, and adulterers? How many of them are perfect and right on the outside, but hiding scars, regrets, and sins on the inside? Taking a step back, I realize I have to ask the same thing of those who sit next to me on Sunday mornings. And sometimes, I even have to ask those things while looking in the mirror. If the fictional characters in "Control" are in such dire need of grace, how much more so those suburbanites, those fellow churchgoers, myself? 

Jason Morehead 5/5/2002
 
 

Jason Morehead is also the publisher of Opuszine, a webzine devoted to independent music and cult cinema.  All of his reviews can also be found at http://www.opuszine.com

 
 
 
 

 

   
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