Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning. David Bazan might be one of my favorite rock musicians of the past 20 years. As in, he’s been in my life ever since he started making music as Pedro the Lion in 1995. I dedicated a whole chapter of my memoir-in-progress to how he’s impacted the course of my musical life . His 2002 album, Control, is one of my Desert Island albums. I’ve seen him several times in concert, and his concurrent spiritual and sociopolitical journeys have mirrored my own.
However, I’ve never been a fan of Headphones – the solo electronic record he released under that moniker in 2005. Initially, I held the record against Bazan as he slowly dissolved Pedro the Lion, but ultimately, it still strikes me as an awkward transition project in between his old band phase and current solo artist phase.
But with the release of Care on Undertow Records in March 2017, it might be time to reassess those old opinions.
It comes on the heels of a busy 2016 when Bazan released an album of new tunes called Blanco in May and Dark Sacred Night, a collection of all the one-off Christmas songs he’s recorded over the years. This newest record brims with equal parts pathos and urgency that feels very cathartic in light of the turbulence of the past several months.
The title track kicks everything off with a plinky keyboard melody on repeat before a bass line marking the melody and Bazan’s weary baritone join the fray. The tune recounts a conversation with a trusted friend about doubt, fear, and being “surrounded by carelessness and we know how much it hurts.”
Care then proceeds through a number of story-songs that explore the various nooks and crannies of self-care and self-medication – drugs, sex, and other such recreational activities – all while bemoaning a range of marital troubles and broken relationships. In the classic Pedro the Lion / David Bazan tradition, he plumbs the depths of the human condition using various oddball characters and outsiders.
Much like a good Flannery O’Connor short story, these aren’t the happiest people, but they do manage to shine a light on the dark corners of the human heart in revealing ways.
Musically, Care is easily the greatest return to Headphones that Bazan has achieved in his decade-long solo career. Every song is rooted in a rudimentary and repeating synth line that then sits atop a syncopated rhythm track reminiscent of a pre-programmed sample on a vintage Yamaha keyboard. The pop ideas are strong, and the production is clear, but pared down, right down to bass lines only performed via keyboard and very few frills on display. The music is heavily influenced by the ‘80s, in my estimation. Think of a downtempo song from Depeche Mode, Bauhaus, or The Cure; strip it back to its essence, and then infuse it with classic emo and pop sensibilities.
David Bazan leaves the best for last with the album closer entitled “The Ballad of Pedro y Blanco,” in which he intones the following advice to himself (and folks like me who write in their spare time in the middle of the night):
“Dreamin’ on in a hospital bed
I’m holding her hand and kissing her head
Kids and grandkids in unison howl
Put down your guitar, go enjoy her right now.”
All in all, the minimalism on display throughout Care is intoxicating, like lullabies for grownups. But like a good lullaby, it’s really the story, the lyrics, the tone of the tale that carry the day. Across standout cuts like “Up All Night,” “Make Music,” and “Inner Lives,” the album is an heartfelt lament bereft of mopey, sad-sack shit. It’s honest to a fault, unafraid to examine the warty, crusty underbelly of human relationships, but never in a crass or voyeuristic manner.