Review Summary: Anecdotes cannot say what Time may do
When I was ten, I was convinced of The Script’s genius. A grade five teacher of mine had proclaimed his love for the Irish trio’s ‘Breakeven’, though it was ‘The Man Who Can’t Be Moved’ that stirred within me that inexplicable feeling. Of admiration, I suppose. (I’d later adorn an uncomfortable blue shawl in some vain attempt at emulating the band’s ever-handsome frontman.) Though also of empathy – for the titular man, and his unfortunate situation.
For those unfamiliar, the song details the adventures of a man who sits in wait for his ex-lover, on the corner of the street on which the two first met. It’s dumb. At several points throughout his self-imposed homelessness, members of the public attempt to hand him change. His response? “Oh, I’m not broke, I’m just a broken-hearted man.” Despite its thoughtless, overwrought attempt at narrative, however, the song was a considerable success. For whatever reason, its tale of heartbreak and despair resonated with me, and, according to its internet status, hundreds of millions of others.
Years earlier, in 2002, Pedro the Lion attempted something similar. Control
was an album’s worth of narrative. Over the course of its ten tracks, mastermind David Bazan set the sacrilegious collapse of a marriage – first adulterous, then murderous – atop Death Cab for Cutie era indie rock, albeit with a darker, headier spin. (Given the current state of things, an “emo” descriptor wouldn’t be too out of place.) It’s been a decade and a half, though, since Pedro the Lion’s last, Achilles’ Heel
, and were it not for the fact that Bazan’s released a considerable amount of music since, one would be forgiven for assuming the title of Phoenix
a tad obvious.
As opposed to some declaration, however (“here we are, risen from out the ashes of a band in its prime!”), Phoenix
is rather literal, referring to the southwestern capital in which Bazan grew up. As can be expected, then, Phoenix
is an album of anecdotes, of introspection and rumination on childhood – its profound sense of wonder and the uncomfortable nature of its horrors. The album’s first is found on ‘Yellow Bike’, in the form of a child receiving his first bike at the dawn of his fifth desert Christmas. As an adult, having “traded in his handlebars” for the luxuries of “vans and rental cars”, the protagonist thinks back to that moment, as well as forward to his finding of “someone to ride with”. Overdone as it is, the road is as effective a metaphor as one could hope, for life and its transitions.
‘The Man Who Can’t Be Moved’, of course, with its street corner setting, represented something of a crossroads for its character. Or, perhaps, one of stagnation. Its ties to Phoenix
, then, an album on the move, is a bit superficial. There is one song, however, on the album’s back-end, that made me think of The Script’s opus. Similar to ‘The Man Who Can’t Be Moved’, ‘Black Canyon’ spins a tale of heartbreak:
Just after midnight, Black Canyon Freeway
A man, when he could no longer deal
Stepped in front of eighteen wheels
Bazan goes on to describe the experiences of an uncle, a first responder at the scene of the incident. What follows is a beautiful sequence of events, in which several characters communicate with the corpse. One such character is a female fire engine driver, who “against her better judgement, all her training and her plan, / [recognises] in those pieces a broken-hearted man”. Now, I think ‘Black Canyon’ is quite a bit more sophisticated than ‘The Man Who Can’t Be Moved’. Whereas the latter is shallow and self-aggrandising, equating in some sense the plight of homelessness to the hurt of being ghosted, Pedro the Lion’s masterpiece is sensitive and heartfelt. But at their core is something common, empathetic: a willingness and desire to, through narrative, real or imagined, understand the suffering of another.
’s emphasis is on that of the anecdotal does, perhaps, lend it some credence. A lot of the time, Bazan speaks from experience. On ‘Quietest Friend’, he laments his unwitting torture of an old schoolfriend into adulthood. ‘Circle K’, on the other hand, treats with no less seriousness his child self’s mistake of spending the allowance he’d saved for a Santa Cruz skateboard on useless items at the titular convenience store. On both these, and much of the rest of the album, Bazan’s voice falls with a heaviness that matches that of his own words. As do the instrumentals, which are delivered hand-in-hand with the album’s narratives. Often, the structures themselves are simple. Like on Pedro the Lion’s oldest work, the drum and bass grooves provide the foundation upon which the guitars and vocals dance. On occasion, though, the lead guitar lends dissonant squeals in response to a narrative detail, or to emphasise the song’s emotional pull.
Again, were it not for Bazan’s solo and collaborative work since Pedro the Lion’s 2004 disintegration, it’d be safe to assume that the title of Phoenix
were illustrative of a band attempting to recapture what once made them great. To some extent, the band do succeed in doing this. But there’s something more here. As with Control
, and much like the other work under the Headphones and Bazan names, Phoenix
is an album that can be viewed as separate from the rest of the man’s catalogue. Despite a common creator, the projects’ intentions are far from uniform. And like with Control
– or It’s Hard to Find a Friend
before it, Curse Your Branches after
is much more than what floats to its surface, and far greater than the sum of its parts. It's an album of stories.