There are few endeavors more creatively ambitious than the concept album. Whether it's Roger Waters' Pink building his wall and tearing it down again, Bowie's Ziggy Stardust singing of Earth's impending demise, or Garth Brooks masquerading as the tormented, alt-rocking Chris Gaines, the concept album is a statement of artistic vision as prone to absolute triumph as to complete folly. But whether triumph or folly, the concept album is frequently the playground of the rock star. It's the undertaking of the fame-emboldened, monolithic artiste, no? Certainly not that of the 26-year-old spiritually thoughtful Northwestern indie rocker.
In 2002, Pedro the Lion — the moniker of Seattle's David Bazan, who has since retired the band and commenced recording and playing under his birth name — released Control. It's a concept album about a philandering businessman who's murdered by his cuckolded wife. It was Pedro the Lion's third album and, as a matter of fact, Pedro's second concept album. Like Bazan's previous work, Control is dark and deeply introspective, setting all the songwriter's narratives against Bazan's own backdrop of religious doubt. He's the son of an evangelical Christian preacher, and much of his subject matter was and continues to be about the struggles of belief and disbelief, faith and doubt.
Pedro's catalog — and Bazan himself — have been lazily slapped with the "Christian rock" label on more than one occasion. But Bazan, who has referred to himself as an agnostic in recent months and years, was never comfortable with the Christian tag, and it never truly suited his spiritually exploratory songs — songs more likely to feature a "goddamn" or an F-bomb than a "praise Him."
Nearly as misleading was Pedro the Lion's frequent association with the dour, introspective '90s-and-turn-of-the-century movement sometimes referred to as "second-wave emo." A far cry from the hair gel-and-mascara, pseudo-hardcore posturing that the word "emo" has come to signify over the past decade, this was basically a batch of indie rockers — dudes like Braid, Mineral and Sunny Day Real Estate — prone to angular, aggressive sonics and emotional catharsis. Bazan has been known to dip into angular riffs, and emotional catharsis is his stock in trade. But rather than place himself at the center of his songs, Bazan has long used characters with sliding scales of morality to illustrate his own struggles.
Yes, a collection of songs about dying, mourning, guilt and extramarital sex may indeed come off as rather melodramatic. Truth be told, Control is an exceptionally melodramatic album. But it's also filled with outstanding songwriting and tight, striking performances. The skronking, urgent riff of "Rapture." The anti-pop cynicism of "Indian Summer" and its critique of capitalism. The shudder-inducing bitterness with which Bazan's leading lady confronts her unfaithful husband in "Rehearsal." The sludgy, near-metal strains of "Second Best." The absolutely gut-wrenching crawl and unsettling fatalism of "Priests and Paramedics." And finally, the impossibly slow wash of resignation that inches Control to its close in "Rejoice."
Listening to Control is an unrelenting, emotionally exhausting experience, and clearly one that has stuck with fans for a decade. In the years since its release, Bazan has moved on from Pedro the Lion, released a couple of critically acclaimed solo LPs and even launched intimate living-room tours, during which he performed in the homes of friends and fans across the country. This year, Control — the most celebrated of Pedro's catalog by Pedro true-blues — was remastered and re-released by Jade Tree Records, as were Pedro's other albums Winners Never Quit, It's Hard to Find a Friend, The Only Reason I Feel Secure and Achilles Heel. In celebration of its 10th birthday and re-release, Bazan and his band have embarked on a six-week tour playing Control in its entirety.