Throwaway Style: Pedro The Lion’s Return and the Secret of the Easy Yoke

Pedro The Lion

Throwaway Style is a weekly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, every Thursday on the KEXP Blog.


My buddy and I are riding in the backseat of a white church van. The whirr of the highway fills in the space of awkward tension. We’re about 17 years old, coming back from watching Ben Gibbard and David Bazan at the Showbox. If I hadn’t run into my youth pastor at the show, we wouldn’t have had a ride home and would’ve had to leave the show early to catch a ferry back to Bremerton. Alongside a couple other youth group kids, we all reminisced about the show for awhile and how cool it was to hear stripped-down versions of Postal Service and Death Cab favorites. Then my friend and I mention how moving we found Bazan’s set. Pastor’s not so much a fan.

It was 2007 and Bazan’s “de-conversion” opus Curse Your Branches hadn’t come out yet. Prior to going solo, Bazan fronted the band Pedro The Lion — a moniker which he’ll adopt again for three nights at Mississippi Studios in Portland this Saturday through Monday, then again in Seattle at the Tractor Tavern December 20-22. Pedro was often inaccurately looped in with the Christian music scene, largely due to Bazan’s openly talking about his faith on records like his Tooth & Nail debut Whole EP and the band’s debut LP It’s Hard To Find A Friend. Pedro’s songs largely weren’t picked up for praise and worship at Sunday service. Michael W. Smith, he was not. Even in Bazan’s earliest days he grappled with his faith, opened up about his doubts, and put his existential crises on display with impeccable indie rock craftsmanship. But by the end of Pedro’s 2004 final album, Achilles’ Heel, doubt looked like it was taking over. Then on his debut solo EP, Fewer Moving Parts, Bazan minced no words.

“Our car’s on fire in the parking lot
And nobody wants it to rain
But God isn’t listening
So all of the windshields glisten
The water and oil mix
Causing the fire to spread
To five or six
Innocent automobiles
Waiting in their nearby spots
What a cruel God we’ve got”

He played that song, “Cold Beer & Cigarettes”, at our show. He also played a mournful, heartbreaking rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that was as about as poetic of an agnostic revelation as you could conceive.

 

So, I could see how my pastor wouldn’t be too psyched. To his credit, he didn’t try to dismiss our thoughts — but he seemed at least a bit disturbed by what Bazan was doing. My friend played him “Lullaby” off the Whole EP and tried to paint him a fuller picture of who Bazan was. My pastor replied, “Well, I’m glad it speaks to you in some way.”

There’s a fear of sharing your doubts in certain Christian circles. At least the ones I found myself around. Your faith has to be unshakable. Stay strong. Pray more. For a long time, I wondered if there was something wrong with me for the thoughts and questions that would every now and then creep into my head. “Why does God let bad things happen?” “Is there a God?” Christian Contemporary Music often reflects that too, with the dreariest they ever get being stories of feeling beat-down but ultimately are restored by your faith a la “Amazing Grace.” I’m generalizing here, but still, Pedro The Lion felt antithetical to all of that. Again, at least to what I was exposed to.

There’s a song on Pedro the Lion’s first record called “Secret of the Easy Yoke.” In a recent interview with Noisey, Bazan named the track as one of the Pedro songs that he can’t play anymore “those lyrics coming out of my mouth would just be like a false confession.” It almost serves as a thesis statement that he continues to embellish upon throughout his discography, a remarkable moment early in his career. But it takes on even more depth with a little further digging into the song’s roots. In Matthew 11:30, Jesus says, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Don’t worry, I’m not here to give you a Bible lesson — definitely not a theologian over here). The yoke is referring to a heavy wooden piece used to hold cattle together to plow fields and pull carts. The point here being that Jesus is saying he is easing the burden, that he makes salvation easier than the laws and rules of the Old Testament — an easier yoke. But what Bazan suggests in “Easy Yoke” is that it’s not quite that simple. The burden isn’t light; it’s heavy, lonely, and isolating.

 

“I still have never seen you and some days I don’t love you at all,” he sings on the chorus. Later in the song, he twists the knife even more: “But if all that’s left is duty/I’m falling on my sword/At least then I would not serve/An unseen distant lord.” It’s pretty grim stuff whether you’re of faith or not. “Easy Yoke” is one of the earliest examples of Bazan wrestling with his faith in such an unforgiving way. Whereas on “Lullaby” on the Whole EP he’s pleading to learn to how to adhere to his faith (“You know I want to be like Jesus/But it seems so very far away/When will I learn to obey?”), “Easy Yoke” doesn’t quite turn around with a moral lesson. Instead, it ends with exasperation, saying he’s losing steam but still wants to trust that “unseen distant Lord,” then belts a moving coda of “Peace be still.” It rests in the beauty and pain of ambiguity, of not having an answer and trying to find peace with that.

To reiterate, Pedro The Lion wasn’t a “Christian band.” They were a band with a Christian songwriter who often wrote about Christianity, but they weren’t making “Christian music.” It wasn’t even the total focus of the band. You can’t talk about Pedro without delving into the powerful denunciation against capitalism and ambition on records like Control and Winners Never Quit — themes he’s continued to explore in his solo material, notably with Strange Negotiations. He’s written entire concept records with full-fledged characters and narrative arcs. But you can’t shake the faith element with Pedro. The band’s last record, Achilles’ Heel, leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Just take a look at the lyrics on “The Fleecing.”

Who shall I blame for this sweet and heavy trouble?
For every stupid struggle, I don’t know
I could buy you a drink
I could tell you all about it
I could tell you why I doubt it, and why I still believe

 

Thematically, he’s still struggling with the same thoughts as he was on It’s Hard To Find A Friend. But there’s a different feeling to it here. He sounds numbed and annoyed to it, living with this uncertainty. On “Foregone Conclusions,” he ridicules believers who defer personal accountability and interpret “the Lord’s will” to whatever best suits their own beliefs. The album ends with “The Poison,” possibly his most gut-wrenching song in his entire catalog. He turns away from the theological to discuss another burden: alcoholism. He exits the final Pedro record with these words: “My old man always swore that Hell would have no flame/Just a front row seat to watch your true love pack her things and drive away.”

So we leave Bazan in Pedro the Lion as a twisted mess. His beliefs are barely hanging on and his vices are taking over. Bazan goes on to address these issues pretty directly on his debut solo LP Curse Your Branches, but if you lost track of his career then you’re left with a pretty big cliffhanger. Bazan’s reasoning for dropping the Pedro moniker have often referred to more-or-less needing a fresh start. The grind of being a touring band was taking its toll and there was an emotional weight to the name that made it complicated, to say the least. Pedro played their last show in 2005 and officially called it quits in early 2006. Bazan quickly moved into his solo career, continuing to play Pedro the Lion tunes as well as tracks from his synth-heavy side-project Headphones. Sometimes he’ll change the lyrics to his older songs to reflect where he is now. That ending line of “The Fleecing” is often changed to “I could tell you why I doubt it and why I don’t believe.”

 

In explaining Pedro’s return, like in that Noisey interview, Bazan explains how the time away has helped him better himself. He’s in a healthier state, ready to take on the world and embrace the name once again. It’s been remarkable seeing the response with articles about the reunion popping up in Pitchfork and Spin. As a fan, you can’t help but be thrilled that he’s finally getting the accolades and attention his work deserves, even if it’s a little weird. Bazan’s been performing this tunes for years and churning out solo records all along, did people not know that? How does someone reunite with themselves? It doesn’t really matter, honestly, as long as people are hearing these songs.

Bazan sounds like he’s made some sort of peace with the name. But what about the fans? Every line of Pedro’s work is ripe for being poured over, examined, and reinterpreted endlessly. It only makes sense that the reunion would as well. So, let’s get #biblical for a second. This isn’t the prodigal son. Nor is it Lazarus rising from the dead. It’s more akin to the story in Genesis where Jacob wrestles with an angel. Jacob gets beat up pretty bad but refuses to let go until the angel blesses him. The angel obliges by changing Jacob’s name to Israel. Bazan has metaphorically wrestled with God across his entire musical career and is now reclaiming his name. It’s not a perfect metaphor, obviously. But it still feels like a sort of homecoming.

One of my favorite things about following Bazan’s career is listening to how his voice has changed and aged from record to record. Put Whole and Care on back-to-back and you can feel the years between them. The softness in his vocals steadily becomes more grizzled, worn, and tired. It makes sense for someone steadily touring and recording for over two decades, but it also builds context on each new recording. I love his voice now even more than his earliest records. It reminds me not just how much he’s changed and gone through, but how much I have as well. I think back to that moment in the church van, sitting in uncomfortable silence as ideologies splintered against each other. I think about “The Secret of the Easy Yoke” and burden as light. I think about all these things and never have any answers for them. But they’re feelings I want to wrestle with. When I see Pedro the Lion finally take the stage, I’m sure these thoughts will rear their complicated heads again and I hope that I’m thankful that I can let myself feel these doubts and confusion. The secret of the easy yoke is that it’s not easy. Pedro The Lion legacy is that it’s okay to say “I don’t know.”

Pedro The Lion plays Mississippi Studios in Portland December 16-18, then Tractor Tavern in Seattle December 20-22. All shows are sold out.

 

New and News

Diogenes Drops Massive Outtakes Collection, Cache Dump

Diogenes has been performing and producing in the local scene for years. His back catalog is massive, constantly churning out tapes of twisted, fiery beats. With how prolific his output is, it’s amazing that he still has material stored up. His latest release, Cache Dump, compiles 37 beats made over the past four years that weren’t released for various reasons – whether it be a track he made for a rapper that didn’t take it or instrumentals for older collaborations. It’s a great chance to get into the mind of Diogenes, with all the tracks named after their original Abelton files (who doesn’t use throwaway names when they’re working on something?).

 

Lisa Prank & Santa’s Little Helpers Release Gimme What I Want

Dude York aren’t the only ones churning out Christmas opuses. Lisa Prank has teamed up with Santa’s Little Helpers (aka Tacocat‘s Bree McKenna and Dogbreth‘s Tristan Jemsek) for a new Christmas themed EP, Gimme What I Want. Everything Prank touches is infused with palpable enthusiasm and glee, making her an ideal artist to imbue the holiday spirit to the masses. With tracks like “Holiday in Space” and “Cute Little Drummer Boy,” how could you not be charmed?

 

Live and Loud: This Week’s Recommended Local Shows

December 14: Perfect Magazine Showcase with Rego, Joe Waine, Olivia White, ARBYC at Blue Moon Tavern

 

December 14: Guayaba, Nordra, and Lilac at Timbre Room

 

December 15: Nicholas Merz (of Darto), Sons of Rainier, Hoop (solo performance), and The Berries at Kame House

 

December 16: Benefit for The Immigration Justice Giving Project with Zen Mother, Darto, Hair and Space Museum, and Dragon at Photon Factory

 

December 17: DoNormaal, RVN, AJ Suede, and Danny Denial at Chop Suey

 

December 18: Heatwarmer, Mystery Wacker, and Pregnant at Vermillion

 

December 21: Dancer and Prancer with Spesh at Chop Suey

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