It may seem ironic that a band named after a character from an imaginary children’s novel should tackle the story of a corrupt politician. But Pedro the Lion, aka David Bazan, has always excelled at delivering stories about personal tragedy and corruption with the wide-eyed honesty of a child. Bazan’s completely honest, yet with a tact and conviction — not to mention lack of guile — that is impossible to deny. Speaking personally, I always find it hard to suppress a sob when listening to songs like “Secret of the Easy Yoke” or “Criticism as Inspiration.”
Winners Never Quit is an album with a theme, that being a politician’s fall into corruption and murder and his eventual redemption. It’s nothing Pedro the Lion hasn’t done before. Their first major label release, the Whole EP on Tooth & Nail Records, was the story of one man’s struggle with drug addiction. And even though I’ve never struggled with drugs, I could identify with the EP’s protagonist, his defiance and rebellion, his struggle for acceptance, and his eventual humility and acceptance of God’s grace. But Winners Never Quit feels strangely distant when compared to Pedro the Lion’s previous releases. Although the album still deals with one man’s fallen nature, self-righteousness, and eventual redemption, one feels oddly unmoved and unaffected by the drama.
Maybe it’s due to the fact that, at only 8 songs and 34 minutes, the whole story feels rushed. The album spends so much time setting up the main character’s evil ways that his redemption feels lacking in the album’s final moments. The songs may be gripping and Bazan’s lyrics may be as pointed and honest as always, but it just doesn’t feel like there’s enough of them, and I’m not saying that just because I want to hear more Pedro the Lion (although that’s certainly a factor). Maybe it’s because corrupt politicians are a dime a dozen these days. Thanks to the shenanigans of our nation’s leaders, we’ve had the seamy underbelly of politics thrust into the public spotlight for so long that the whole subject feels trite.
I realize that this may sound incredibly hypocritical, but when looked at from another way, Winners Never Quit does contains some of the best songs that Bazan has ever written. “A Mind of Her Own” really stands out, a noisy power pop number in the vein of Sugar, though it is odd to hear a Pedro the Lion song with distortion. It’s the closest Bazan has ever come to sounding menacing, as he sings about the main character’s attempts to keep his wife from squealing. Lyrics like “Oh look who it is/It’s my supportive wife/And she thinks she’s going to squeal/Hey where do you think you’re going?/Don’t you walk away from me/You put down that telephone/You’re not calling anyone” sound absolutely vicious coming from Bazan’s mouth.
“Never Leave a Job Half Done” is downright catchy, with a singalong chorus, even though it’s about the character’s attempts to dispose of his wife’s body. However, Bazan doesn’t focus on the gory nitty-gritty, but rather the character’s attempts to justify his deeds. To his credit, Bazan does an excellent job of getting inside his protagonist’s head and showing his self-righteousness and conviction that what he’s doing is perfectly okay. As he sings in “Eye on the Finish Line” with more than just a hint of weariness and regret, “It’s strange that it should end this way/But martyrs never have a say.”
Winners Never Quit was easily one of the most anticipated albums of 2000 for me, even though the year isn’t even four months old. The mailing lists I’m subscribed to were buzzing with talk about the new album, especially when it was revealed that Pedro the Lion had signed to super-indie Jade Tree and that David was recording the entire album all by himself.
While Bazan’s songwriting has probably never been better than on this album, the emotional and spiritual depth that underscored his songwriting feels strangely underwhelming. That being said, part of me wants to add that at his worst, Bazan still creates music that is far more absorbing and emotional than 90% of the releases you’ll hear this year. But there’s still this nagging part of me I can’t deny that expected, perhaps unfairly and unjustly, a little more.