Following a 15-year gap that yielded a prolific if occasionally spotty solo career, David Bazan revives his Pedro the Lion moniker for a deeply reflective, though pleasingly muscular full-band album. In late 2005, one year after the release of their fourth album, Achilles Heel, the mercurial songsmith retired the band name, which for all intents and purposes had represented his lone artistic vision, opting instead to continue working under his given name. During Pedro the Lion's decade of existence, literally dozens of players cycled through the band's ranks with just a few (T.W. Walsh, Trey Many, Casey Foubert) sticking around long enough to have any real influence on Bazan's single-handed approach. Still, the intent and opportunity for collaboration was an inherent part of his often conflicted outlook and it lent a certain amount of weight and purpose to those first four Pedro the Lion albums.
A decade and a half on, this is still the case, as he repurposes the name to stand for yet another iteration of the band, bringing in newcomers Sean Lane on drums and Erik Walters on guitar while he mans the bass. With no returning personnel and a frontman whose extensive solo catalog serves as a living extension of the band's sound, it would be wrong to call Phoenix a reunion album, though there is something in its tone and attitude that makes it feel distinctly like a Pedro the Lion release. Much of the 13-song set is delivered as a properly stripped-down power trio and that minimalism harkens back to the band's early days, albeit with an altogether beefier sound thanks to producer Andy Park. As a songwriter and vocalist, Bazan is in good form, turning to his past to try and understand his present condition on standouts like the nostalgic "Yellow Bike" and "Model Homes," his cracked but powerful vocals evoking a hard-won wisdom that his younger emo self ached for. Bazan's complicated relationship with his faith remains a theme, though it seems to have softened with time. His church-going childhood appears as more of a backdrop for sensory memories like the pleasure felt at hearing his parents sing at a Sunday evening service on the spacy "Piano Bench," one of three analog synth-led tracks that breaks up the album's otherwise classic guitar-bass-drums arrangements. Older, wiser, and still passionate, Phoenix is a worthy continuation of Pedro the Lion's legacy with just enough spirit to set it apart from his 2010s solo work.