David Bazan, the emerging indie singer-songwriter who records under the name Pedro the Lion, is a Christian who makes little secret of his religious struggles. Yet the liner-note epigraph to his new album, "Winners Never Quit," reads, "A good person is someone who hasn't been caught." And that's Bazan's charm: He exudes a fragile spirituality that never turns into Christ-core self-righteousness or hellfire fundamentalism. Instead, his delicate acoustic pop is concerned with reconciling evil, pain and weakness with belief and compassion. "The irony to see my dad down on his knees/Crying out to Jesus/'But, Lord, I've always done what's right'/And all the while/The good Lord smiled/And looked the other way," he sings on the spare, acoustic "Bad Things to Such Good People."
Because of Bazan's searching intensity, Pedro's music is often labeled emocore, a genre based on open-wound honesty and unabashed emotion. Emocore is doubtlessly a salutary thing: One of the scene's most prominent bands is Rainer Maria, and it's hard not to be heartened by a subculture that lionizes a group named after Austrian lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Nevertheless, the term "emo" ghettoizes all the radically different artists who fall under its umbrella, obscuring the fact that Bazan is mining familiar and very accessible guitar pop territory. His music is too universal to be relegated to a tiny movement.
That said, Pedro the Lion does represent a sort of quiet rebellion against the hollow knowingness and bombast of mainstream rock bands like Limp Bizkit, Korn and Beck. Much of the record is a song cycle about a drunken man who kills his wife. Though the lyrics are from the murderer's perspective, the emotional tenor is
nothing like Eminem's femicide fantasies, and the complexities of the stories prevent the record from slipping into Henry Rollins-style sermonizing. Instead, there's a tragic humanism in these songs that almost recalls "Dead Man Walking." Bazan manages to convey the horror and contorted anguish of his protagonist without trivializing either -- or falling into bathos and melodrama.
The disjointed narrative that makes up much of the record begins with the third track, "To Protect the Family Name," a hazy dirge in which a soused, humiliated man pleads with a cop not to arrest him. Bazan's voice is deadpan and weary, mixed low to convey the mumbling cadences of someone who can't look his listener in the eye. "I swore I'd be careful not to/Further shame the family name," he moans softly.
The fatalism of that track explodes in "A Mind of Her Own," a dark rocker that departs from Pedro's acoustic melancholia. The song finds a violent man and his wife in the midst of a violent fight. Bazan mimics the abuser's disingenuous cajoling, quietly singing, "Dear, unlock the door/You're acting like a child." Later, he embodies hideous, delusional self-pity as his voice goes raw and he wails, "I took their wrong and I took their lies/And I made them right, I made them right."
The next song details the aftermath of the murder in a weirdly catchy, buzzing track. At first, the upbeat music seems a horrid match for the lyrics, but again, Bazan uses it to capture the cracked frenzy of an ordinary man who has just become a killer. The fallout follows in the aching funereal laments "Eye on the Finish Line" and "Bad Things to Such Good People," in which Bazan sings of his character's parents, "Their biggest success is now their biggest failure." He knows better than to try to answer the question implied by the song's title, but it's nonetheless terribly moving to hear him grappling with it. Rather than use his faith as a source of pat judgment, he uses it to try to comprehend violence, though without forgiving it. There's a rare depth beneath his subtle guitar and tired, textured voice, one that resonates beyond any little musical coterie.