I said last week that I would only write about new music if I truly enjoyed it. I am happy to report that I have thoroughly enjoyed 2019 so far.
We’ve just had the first major new music Friday of the year, and it was an extraordinary one. I bought eleven new albums, and I’m still sifting through them, listening whenever I have time. Still on my docket are new ones from Sharon Van Etten, Juliana Hatfield and James Blake. I am right now actually enjoying Guster’s Look Alive. It’s the album they have been moving toward for more than a decade now, and while it is nothing like the music I most love from them, it’s the first one since their directional shift to move me in any way. So that’s good.
Prioritizing is a difficult thing for me, and when I get a slew of new music like this, I often don’t know what to listen to first. I usually let my gut guide me on that one, figuring out on the fly which records I am most interested in. This time I chose two from long-running artists that have meant a lot to me. Even so, I’m not sure I was ready for how much Pedro the Lion’s Phoenix affected me. I’ve heard it four times now, and each time I’m drawn in, hearing new emotional layers.
Pedro the Lion is the full-band project of David Bazan, a songwriter I have adored for many years. Bazan was one of the first artists I followed through spiritual deconstruction – his early Pedro material is drenched in his faith, but as he started asking questions, he found the bottom of that faith falling out from beneath him. He detailed this struggle in raw, searing terms on his first solo album, the amazing Curse Your Branches, and has kept on detailing it through a series of increasingly insular records. His songs and his voice have remained magnificent, but his electronic sound has sealed him in.
Which is one reason it’s so exhilarating to hear him reignite Pedro with new players Sean Lane and Erik Walters. Bazan plays bass in this new incarnation, with Walters providing most of the bright, gorgeous guitar tones on Phoenix. This is a collaborative project, his new players pulling the life and soul out of these new songs. They simply explode from the speakers in a way Bazan’s work hasn’t for some time. (I’m not forgetting about Lo Tom, his delightful side project with Jason Martin and TW Walsh, and I hope we get more of that someday too.)
Phoenix is the perfect title for an album that resurrects a project many had written off for dead – this is the first album under that name in 15 years – and I’m sure Bazan intended the name in that sense, but the more grounded explanation is that these songs draw heavily on Bazan’s childhood in Phoenix for inspiration. The record opens with “Yellow Bike,” a paean to childhood that contains a lifetime of ache in one succinct line: “My kingdom for someone to ride with.”
“Model Homes” uses a family trip to see houses they could not afford as a metaphor for Bazan’s eternal hope for something better. “Circle K” turns a childhood story of spending all of his savings on nothing of value into a dark lament. “Quietest Friend” tells a tale of a 30-year-old regret, and gets fantastically meta by the end: “We could write me some reminders, I’d memorize them, I could sing them to myself and whoever’s listening, I could put them on a record about my hometown, sitting here with pen and paper, I’m listening now…” The amazing “My Phoenix” finds the adult Bazan returning to his home town to take stock. It’s one of the best songs Bazan has ever written.
Song by song, these are wonderful little things, but together they have a cumulative effect I didn’t expect. Phoenix as an album is about trying to recapture something that seems ephemeral. Bazan really did make a deeply personal trip back to Phoenix during what he acknowledges as his lowest point in 2016, and these songs find him searching his past for something lost. I will admit that when closer “Leaving the Valley” ends with a reconsideration of a verse from “Hard to Be,” off of Curse Your Branches, I usually tear up: “If I swung my tassel to the left side of my cap, after graduation will there be no going back?”
It’s not that I don’t expect a thoughtful songwriter like Bazan to put his previous conclusions through new prisms. It’s just that Phoenixis such an emotional journey, and its ending the perfect arrival point. It’s hard for me to say whether this is my favorite Pedro the Lion album, because there is so much competition. But it’s my favorite right now, and each time I listen I hold it closer.
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I don’t have a favorite Joe Jackson album, but that’s simply because his work has been all over the map since day one. Look Sharp is probably my favorite snarky new-wave Joe Jackson album, while Night and Day is probably my favorite guitar-free keyboard panorama Joe Jackson album and Rain is my favorite piano trio Joe Jackson album and Night Music is my favorite chamber-pop Joe Jackson album, and on and on. He has no signature sound, and his disparate catalog is only bound together by his voice and his famously grouchy lyrics.
Because make no mistake, Joe Jackson has been a grumpy old man since he was an infant, and that carries through on his splendid 20th album, Fool. This record comes four years after Fast Forward, a meticulous and varied piece of work recorded in four cities with four different bands. Fool, created quickly with the Fast Forward touring band, is a tighter and more consistent record – these eight songs clearly belong together, and all sound of a piece.
They also sound like a live band finding a groove and locking in. Longtime bassist Graham Maby anchors this ensemble – he’s one of the most underrated players around, having spent the last four decades providing the backbone of every Jackson record. Guitarist Teddy Kumpel and drummer Doug Yeowell round things out, with Joe on the piano as always. The sound is rich and alive, and the songs match it. Lead single “Fabulously Absolute” is one of Joe’s most convincing rock rave-ups in years, the title track is a wild journey through half a dozen styles, and “Strange Land” is one of my favorite late-career Joe Jackson ballads.
That one works as a mission statement, lyrically speaking, as well as any of them. Jackson spends much of Fool the way he’s spent wide swaths of his career: looking around at the world in bewilderment, and occasionally in disgust. “Is this a strange land, or am I the stranger,” he asks, feeling isolated by a humanity he doesn’t recognize. “Big Black Cloud” is a spiritual sequel to Night and Day’s “Cancer,” hitting back at a world in which everything will kill you. (He even includes a reference to 9/11, to drive the point home.) “Fabulously Absolute” is an angry song about how we box people into their worst characteristics and judge them for it, delivered with Joe’s trademark lack of subtlety: “I’m just somebody to ignore, someone who doesn’t know the score, or maybe blinded by the light, ‘cause I’m a filthy troglodyte…”
Given all that, it’s a wonder that Fool ends on such a positive note. I really love the second half of this album, particularly the what-the-hell title track (which, as the liner notes suggest, “may contain traces of Twelfth Night and King Lear) and the gorgeous “32 Kisses,” a song of regret and gratitude. The album concludes with the pretty, lounge-y “Alchemy,” in which Joe points to a bewildering world with a newfound sense of wonder. Jackson is 64 years old now, and you never know whether you’re hearing an artist’s final work, so the fact that this one ends on such a high fills me with joy.
I’m not sure Joe Jackson has ever wanted to fill me with joy, but there it is. Aside from that ill-advised Duke Ellington tribute-slash-mess from a few years ago, Joe Jackson has been on a serious roll for nearly two decades now, and Fool continues the streak. Jackson’s never quite gotten his due as a songwriter and a player, existing in the margins for much of his career, but the bright side there is that he’s been able to do exactly what he wants, as often as he wants. Despite what I said above, I hope he has another 20 albums in him, and I hope they’re all as good as Fool.
OK, next week, more from this week’s bounty. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.