Wednesday, April 24, 2019

album review: 'morbid stuff' by PUP

You know, it's funny, I was talking with a fellow Canadian music writer when I was catching a few punk bands performing in downtown Toronto and mostly making fun of the label guys who are clearly too cool for any of this and aren't nearly as inconspicuous as they think they are, and I was wondering why the hell they were even here. Sure, punk can move units on the festival circuit, but that scene is nowhere close to the market share it was even a decade ago. But then she pointed out something obvious: they had to be there. Even if the majority of those bar bands would turn out to be nothing or would flame out or become the underground lifers for which music is a hobby, every so often you'd get an act like Fucked Up or Japandroids or PUP, and whatever's left of larger rock/punk labels would need to find them somehow.

And it was that conversation that leaped to mind when I went through PUP's back catalog again for this review: because man, I've heard a lot of pop punk bar acts that fit close to what PUP is delivering. Huge abrasive riffs, shouted vocals, far better guitar and drum work that you wouldn't expect from the old pop punk set in the 2000s thanks to a lingering post-hardcore influence, lyrics ripping sheets from the third wave of emo - really, the bands that blow up with this sound are the ones that actually can write sticky songs and hooks, and that's what PUP had. I'll freely admit not quite loving what PUP brought to the table - I've long felt the band had missed some tightness in their first two projects even if the hooks were there, especially on the debut which I think I like more than The Dream Is Over - but given how much critical acclaim has fallen on their third album Morbid Stuff, which many have suggested is their most refined and paradoxically raucous project to date, I really had to make time to check this out, so what did we get from Morbid Stuff?

Honestly... it's a PUP album. And while I certainly see the critical acclaim for this band in terms of expanding and tightening their sound down to what's most frenetic and effective, I think I'm at this point where while I'll support and appreciate this band, I wouldn't quite call them a personal favourite, mostly because a lot of my quibbles with this album I could make against most of their last two projects. Again, this is a really good album - PUP is carving out a niche in punk in marrying their hardcore and pop punk tendencies with a splash of emo and post-hardcore, and Morbid Stuff holds together a little more effectively than, say, The Dream Is Over - but I'm not sure I'm fully on the bandwagon calling them great, even if they're really damn close.

And all of this comes with the acknowledgement right out of the gate that I can see the ingredients to a PUP album that'd hit for me, mostly because the sound they've created is pretty damn compelling. Huge melodic hooks anchored in the guitars and aggressive basslines, overblown drumwork that's doing more than I think is given credit, and especially the vocals led by Stefan Babcock's howl and his full band shouting along behind him. It has a disheveled, bar-band vibe and I mean that as a compliment, especially given the intentionally rough-edged swagger the band has cultivated - in Toronto, a city full of preening posers, PUP is content to get drunk and fight with a desperate edge that excuses the feedback that spills over or how the more hardcore songs seem to collapse under their own grooves. And this is where I will plug in my consistent criticism of PUP: if the hooks are better than ever and they remain pretty good writers - more on this in a bit - would it kill you to push the vocals a little closer to the front in the mix, especially if you're trying to be more anthemic than ever? It just seems like that last step to truly put them over the top, and I'm not convinced it would compromise their tones, especially if the songwriting is taking turns for the introspective - hell, look at IDLES. Now it's also not to say this tone is entirely unique to PUP either - more than a few glances are being made at Jeff Rosenstock and especially when you dig into the sound and lyrical ideas, PUP isn't really aiming as high as he is - but on some level that makes sense: doubling down on their pop focus on a compositional level let's them get to the abundance of hooks on songs like the title track or 'Kids' or 'Bare Hands' or 'Bloody Mary, Kate & Ashley' while still allowing room for the more expansive, multi-part midlife crisis on 'Scorpion Hill' or the pummeling, damn near metalcore crunch of 'Full Blown Meltdown'. My one complaint is that I don't think the album ends particularly strongly with 'City', a melancholic, bassy slowdown that which is playing to an emotive side that I'm not quite certain the band can quite pull off, especially given how far back the vocals can feel - you need intimacy in your pickups to pull off those moments, and PUP doesn't really foster that vibe.

Well, at least not in that way, because then we get to the lyrics and the opening track having note-perfect references to parts of the Greater Toronto Area, and you realize that the band isn't about to abandon the specific scope that gives their work both universality and clear focus. Because on the surface, the broader arc of this project might be a breakup album, but PUP is more interested conceptually in our fascination with negative and self-destructive emotions, and they don't shy away from including themselves in that conversation. And while some of the individual song topics or moments might feel a bit rote if you listen to a lot of emo, what places Morbid Stuff in a different tier and probably closer to the current third wave of emo is the framing: because they know these moments are self-destructive and are only rooted in the best of intentions if they're lying to themselves... but the emotionality is still there and still somewhat valid regardless of its rampant immaturity, and that conflicted dichotomy gives the album its power. Look at the post-breakup awkwardness of 'See You At Your Funeral', confronting an old ex while he's going through the rituals of adulthood in getting his life together, and he tries to be civil even as his questions reopen old wounds - but the catharsis probably would come the most through screaming in her face. And the next song 'Scorpion Hill' goes further, because when you're laid off and debt-ridden and desperate, you might find some sick solace in pretty dark thoughts... until your partner finds your gun in your child's room and you're forced to face reality and responsibilities. And that's why 'Full Blown Meltdown' makes so much sense on the same album: the active deconstruction where he highlights the industry and allure built off of self-destruction, but he's also discovering not only that it has limited appeal in real life - see the hook of 'Free At Last' - but in art it gets tedious and increasingly artificial, so where the hell do you go from here? Now this is actually a similar arc that Foxing explored on their transcendent project last year Nearer My God, and they actually took the steps to drill deeper into the root causes that PUP doesn't quite hit... but on some level that makes sense, because this project is nowhere near as detached and this emotional battle is something that doesn't have a clean or logical resolution, no matter how much closure he desperately wants - it's one reason that even if I don't really like the downbeat ending on 'City', the cloying feeling of helplessness makes a lot of sense.

So yeah, this is a pretty great PUP album - probably their most cohesive and well-structured to date with a ton of riotous hooks and well-thought writing. I wish I was convinced it completely stuck the landing, and I still think a few production tweaks would put these guys into the stratosphere... but yeah, I'm going to err on the side of positive here and give this an extremely light 8/10 and absolutely a recommendation if you haven't heard them already. For a band that can feel this local and yet deliver this big, I have to provide a lot of respect, so even if it's just Morbid Stuff, it's absolutely worth hearing.

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