Over the past decade, it has at times been possible to read PUP’s career as one long performance art piece about the imminent collapse of PUP.
The prodigiously neurotic and violently catchy Toronto punk band named themselves after a phrase borrowed from singer-guitarist Stefan Babcock’s grandmother: “Pathetic Use of Potential.” If the troubles fueling their 2013 self-titled debut were mostly not that meta — romantic discord, substance abuse, failure-to-launch self-loathing — 2016’s breakneck The Dream Is Over brought intra-band conflict directly into the frame. The album title was what Babcock’s doctor told him while diagnosing damaged vocal cords that might’ve ended the band. Opening track “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” depicted PUP as a powder keg of resentment ready to blow at any moment, yelling at each other, “Why can’t we just get along?!” By 2019’s Morbid StuffBabcock was openly questioning his own business model: “And make no mistake, I know exactly what I’m doing/ I’m just surprised the world isn’t sick of grown men whining like children.”
I must not be that concerned about listeners running out of patience for this stuff because PUPs are about to unveil a grand concept album about their own implosion. In truth, a large portion of the songs on THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND are not explicitly about a band falling apart, or even observably about the band at all. Advance singles like the ferocious “Totally Fine,” the thunderous “Waiting,” and the power-pop oddity “Robot Writes A Love Song” are all tangled up in PUP fixtures like death, depression, and toxic relationships. Still, there’s enough Broadway-esque theatricality and narrative framing to qualify the album as a plot-driven epic about a group that has come to deeply despise its own existence. If these four musicians actually do view their band as a corporation that must press on to satisfy its stakeholders, the obligatory death trudge is not resulting in music any less potent. But then, transmuting life’s frustrations into unhinged visceral joy has always been PUP’s whole deal.
The band recorded UNRAVELING at the Connecticut mansion of Peter Katis, a producer who tends to work with brooding, emotive howlers of a different class (his client list includes Frightened Rabbit, the National, and Gang Of Youths). Afforded more time and space than usual — due to the pandemic and a large Victorian house that reminded them of American Horror Story — PUPs came away with their most flowery and experimental album to date. Various brass instruments come blaring into the mix more than once on songs raw enough to actually merit a Neutral Milk Hotel comparison. “Habits” toys around with trap-style drum programming, skittering digital hi-hats and all, without ceasing to sound like PUP. Whereas last album’s “Scorpion Hill” was a feint that quickly exploded into this group’s usual rancor, “Cutting Off The Corners” remains in power ballad mode to the end, Babcock mewling about “circling the drain” over flickering livewire guitar and a bottomless pit of low end. They clearly got their money’s worth out of Katis.
Yet the fancy window dressing has not diminished the throttling aggression at the foundation of PUP’s music. Babcock’s bandmates (guitarist Steve Sladkowski, bassist Nestor Chumak, and drummer Zack Mykula) have known each other since grade school, and they play with an intuitive tightness to match. The metallic heaven they achieved on Morbid Stuff remains, that sense that the rhythm section is clobbering you with futuristic blunt-force weapons. Babcock’s nasal hooks and ranting, raving spoken-word passages evoke the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn at his most exasperated, though Babcock peppers in references to Soundgarden and Ricky Martin instead of Kerouac and Kate Bush. And in UNRAVELING‘s quiet moments, he whimpers with the best of them.
Opener “Four Chords,” a twee theater-kid piano ballad that recurs throughout the record, introduces the concept of a board of directors at a quarterly meeting determining “how best to proceed.” Babcock all but breaks the fourth wall to suggest he could attempt to write something rudimentary on piano, then expresses doubt that it will appeal to friends who “hate my guts” and “haven’t listened to any new music since college.” When the motif returns halfway through the album, he offers a comically dismal update: “The board of directors are growing impatient/ The budget is shrinking and we can’t agree/ So we vote on the issues, like: Are we tuning the vocals ?/ I say ‘no’ and I vote to end democracy in this fucking band.” At album’s end, the final interlude abruptly gives way to “PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing For Bankruptcy,” a sardonic state of the union that’s among PUP’s finest towering-inferno freakouts. “I think I’m gonna blast off!” Babcock begins. “Too old for teen angst, too young to be washed.”
though UNRAVELING gives over a decent amount of airtime to Babcock’s own personal drama, the album always returns to the cost of partaking in the professional punk-rock rat race. “Relentless,” featuring vocals from former PUP tour mate Sarah Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties, wrestles with denial about just how badly Babcock wants success, while “Grim Reaping,” the rare PUP anthem that loses momentum as it goes, presents the end result of selling your pain for profit: “Where there once was a flame in my chest/ There’s only Grim Reaping.” Early standout “Matilda” finds a fascinating entry point into this same anguish: It’s sung from the perspective of a shabby guitar Babcock has long since cast aside in favor of more professional equipment. In a rare moment of triumph and goodwill amidst so much agony, he retrieves the instrument for one final spotlight solo on the bridge.
The concept of a band evolving from a fun hobby to a grueling job to an unbearable albatross is not unique; on the other hand, if you’re not in a band, it’s not especially relatable. But PUPs are experts at invigorating tired tropes, and they’re even better at mining out painfully familiar sensations from their own experience, so that anyone who’s ever been embittered or distressed can find catharsis by becoming one with the vocal gang. They’re so good at this stuff, in fact, that they’ve built something close to a sustainable career in an industry every bit as volatile as their music. In the end, even Babcock has to admit he’s been “failing upward.” On the closing track, after a few more rounds of scathing self-deprecation, the clouds part and he declares, “I’m truly grateful for the life that I’ve led/ I’m just being dramatic.” Why stop now when it’s working out so well?
THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND is out 4/1 on Little Dipper/Rise Records.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Syd’s Broken Hearts Club
• Christian Lee Hutson’s Quitters
•Pillow Queens’ Leave The Light On
• Meshuggah’s immutable
• Alabaster DePlume’s Gold
• Battle Bird’s I Saw The Egg
• Jon Spencer & The HITmakers’ SPENCER GETS IT LIT!
• The Dead Tongues’ Dust
• Daryl Hall’s BeforeAfter
• Papercuts’ Past Life Regression
• Daniel Johns’ FutureNever
• Thomas Rhett’s Where We Started
• Lights’ PEP
• Wolf’s Shadowland
• Factor Chandelier’s Time Invested II
• NCT DREAM’s GlitchMode
• Plastikman & Chilly Gonzales’ Consumed In Key
• Warmduster’s At The Hot Spot
• Confidence Man’s TILT
• Lustmord & various artists’ The Others [Lustmord Deconstructed]
• µ-Ziq’s goodbye EP
• Hrishikesh Hirway’s Rooms I Used To Call My Own EP
• Miley Cyrus’ Attention: Miley Live
• Disappeared’ Live At Shea Stadium
• Melissa Manchester’s Live ’77
• The Grateful Dead’s Dick’s Picks Vol. 19—10/19/73 Oklahoma City Fairgrounds Arena, Oklahoma City, OK