On "Bands With Managers," the characteristically seething opener to Pedro The Lion's Achilles Heel, singer-songwriter David Bazan spells out a snide, obliquely fatalistic account of those who seek fame and glory—"bands with messy hair and smooth white faces"—only to encounter danger and doom. Hubris and death are often intertwined in Bazan's complex moral universe, and "Bands With Managers" would seem to introduce another thematically unified concept album, this time about the treacherous path to a lofty destination that may not be worth pursuing.
But it's messier than that, for better and for worse. Achilles Heel branches out into heady topics like religion ("Foregone Conclusion"), premature death ("Discretion"), broken bodies ("Transcontinental"), and ill-conceived marriage ("I Do") with striking results, but the songs don't fit into a cohesive larger statement the way albums like Winners Never Quit and Control do. Musically, it feels like a bit of a hodge-podge, too, as the portentous "Bands With Managers" rubs up against the likes of "Foregone Conclusion" (which sounds for all the world like a lost Lemonheads track) and the unexpectedly slinky "Keep Swinging."
Still, Bazan scatters exquisitely wrought, inimitably pessimistic epiphanies throughout Achilles Heel, spinning morbidly beautiful lines about everything from parenthood—"It's time to bury dreams and raise a son to live vicariously through"—to romantic alienation. (The latter topic fuels the album's drop-dead closer: "My old man always swore that hell would have no flame / just a front-row seat to watch your true love pack her things and drive away.") Achilles Heel may not cohere as well as its predecessors, but its best moments still chill the blood in wise and winning ways.