Pedro the Lion comes out swinging on its latest release, Achilles’ Heel. Granted, it comes out swinging pretty slowly, heavy with mid-tempo ballads and mid-tempo rockers, but in the end the success of the album is, as always, David Bazan’s melodic sense.

The followup to 2002’s Control, Achilles’ Heel abandons the concept-album approach that characterized its previous two releases (the story of a “hyper-modern marriage” on Control and of a politician’s fall from grace on Winners Never Quit) and opts for a more straightforward rock approach.

“Bands With Managers” kicks off the album. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the tune gets the album started at a gradual roll. Bazan’s characteristically lethargic vocals are reinforced by plodding drums and a deliberately paced guitar line with sparing bass. Bazan eventually stretches out of the song’s range to intone, “You don’t believe when I say that it won’t be alright,” leading into the song’s resolution.

Much has been written of Pedro’s Christian leanings, and “Foregone Conclusions” retreads familiar territory. The track addresses an unnamed subject on the concept of faith by asserting, “You were too busy steering the conversation toward the lord / You hear the voice of the spirit begging you to shut the f-ck up.” It’s an interesting take, coming from a tried-and-true Christian voice, and helps distance Bazan from other bands in the genre.

Bazan’s conflicted introspection continues on “The Fleecing,” as he remarks, “Who shall I blame / for this sweet and heavy trouble / for every stupid trouble / I don’t know / I could buy you a drink / I could tell you all about it / I could tell you why I doubt it and why I still believe.” Regardless of its message, the melody is a beautiful piece of work, with rambling guitar and bass melodies intertwined to support Bazan’s impeccable sense of where the melody of the song needs to go.

“Keep Swinging” changes directions slightly, with a minimalist approach reminiscent of bands like Acetone and Wilco. Crunchy guitars and a weaving bassline are framed with a constant maraca and drumbeat. Over the top, Bazan harmonizes, “You got drunk / more so than you’d ever been / and hailed a cab but passed out cold / before you told the driver where to go / and so he drove you around Chicago.”

The standout “Transcontinental” contains musings from the perspective of a paralyzed man. Bazan is in fine form lyrically and melodically as the track glides along, dreamily denoting, “engine severs lower legs,” with subtle swells of synthesizer punctuating phrases. Bazan then changes focus to, “A man whose legs were crushed beneath a fallen evergreen tree,” effectively punctuated by a small production twist of reversed delay behind the latter half of the line.

Other tracks have a more muddled focus. Described on the band’s website, “A Simple Plan” tells the story of “a father whose breadwinner function is relieved by the dawn of communism.” Bazan’s lyrics are discreet and could just as easily be about the average factory worker, but with the added focus, the song takes on another dimension as he sings, “The plants and the factories are perfectly run / the workers and bosses are living as one / people are equal / people are good / people are working as hard as they should be.” Even with the optimistic observations, the vantage of the protagonist is unclear, with lines like, “It’s such a simple plan / to take it like a man / but I’m not sure I can.”

Achilles’ Heel does, however, suffer from a truncated range. Bazan’s vocals have relatively little variation, sticking to the singer’s time-tested keening, and the songs themselves are relatively close to one another in construction, making it questionable how many listens the album can take before blending into itself. Still, Bazan is in earnest, sticking to what he can do best, and the formula is nothing if not characteristic of the band’s legacy and evolution over the years.

The jaded will likely find Pedro hard to bear, but those willing to suspend their disbelief or look at the album as music first and philosophy second will find a well-constructed melodic work founded on one of the era’s most intuitive songsmiths.

Grade: A/B