Any record company executive still flipping a shit about illegal downloading would do well to look at singer-songwriter Joe Pug as a model for musical success in the era of torrenting. In 2008, Pug became dissatisfied with his life as a playwriting student. He abruptly dropped out of UNC and moved to Chicago, where he started crafting acoustic folk songs with lyrics drawn from his unfinished plays. He was just a guy with a guitar, but by giving away a lot of his music for free (his In the Meantime EP is still available for free on his website, along with a four-song sampler) he developed a loyal fan-base who spread his songs to friends.
His relative success has been remarkable; four years after releasing an underground EP (Nation of Heat) without a college education to his name, he just released his second full-length album, The Great Despiser, and is currently in the middle of another nation-wide tour that will bring him to Chicago’s Lincoln Hall on May 18. The Great Despiser represents not only the potential commercial success of word-of-mouth but also Pug’s growth as an artist and storyteller.
To the degree that any of Pug’s songs can be considered a ‘hit,’ his song “Speak Plainly Diana” of his debut EP Nation of Heat is one: grainy Dylanesque vocals and lovable acoustic guitar strumming combined with a sing-along chorus that Pug often allows the crowd to sing during live performances (he seems to have recognized it as one of his best songs, having since reworked it with a full band and slide guitar on his previous full-length LP, Messenger). That aforementioned Dylan singer/songwriter influence on that song personifies the musical style of the two EPs that form the early stages of his career, as do the lyrics.
As the title indicates, the song is ostensibly dedicated to a girl, but the lyrics are byzantine prose poetry that are interesting and hummable but still veiled in obscurity: “yes, there’s mysteries in the basement/ but there’s comic books upstairs.” Other early cuts, like “Lock the Door Christina” and “Nation of Heat” follow the similar model.
The first track and lead single off Despiser is called “Hymn #76,” and it is both homage and a farewell his previous work. It is a continuation in Pug’s unofficial “Hymn” series (two of the songs off Nation of Heat are titled “Hymn #35” and “Hymn #101”) and despite the “full band” vibe of the new album, still sonically resembles those early songs. With a final lyric of “Show me what was precious; it was lost,” the song closes the book on that early chapter of Pug’s career, leaving him free to move into the album’s three song core: the title track, “A Gentle Few,” and “Ours.”
“Diana” and “Christina” provide an elliptical boy-to-girl storytelling dynamic, but many of the tracks on this album offer much more interesting anecdotes. “The Great Despiser” is the story of an alcoholic prodigal pleading to his brother for redemption and forgiveness after a roller coaster life, while “A Gentle Few” narrates the climactic confrontation between a prodigal and his father. The narrator of “Ours” talks about how “we took what we inherited/and dug a hole and buried it,” a good analogy for Pug shedding a bit of that Dylan influence and moving more fully into his own sound, unabashed of the influence of lesser known country singers.
Just as the storytelling on The Great Despiser incorporates a deeper world than that glimpsed on previous releases (“there’s a world out there, I know there is,” he sings on “Silver Harps and Violins”) the sound on these songs is much more expansive. But personal connection remains paramount in Pug’s universe. The narrator of “Ours” tells how “all we wanted was a narrative,” and “Stronger Than The World” talks of a relationship where “I’ve got a hold on you, stronger than the whole damn world.”
The album ends with a studio recording of a cover Pug has often played live: “Start Again” by Texas artist Harvey Thomas Young. Renamed “Deep Dark Wells” by Pug, the song is a letter from the songwriter to his jailed brother maintaining that redemptive second chances are always possible. The storytelling is a clear influence on “The Great Despiser,” but the message here is much more optimistic: “as long as you’re not finished, you can start all over again.” Pug himself seems to be heeding the advice of another line: “well now is then, and tomorrow’s coming/and where you’ve been starts meaning something/as long as you can, just keep stumbling ahead.” The music of The Great Despiser has clear roots in his earlier work, but demonstrates his growth into a unique artist, full of compelling stories and great guitar. The musicality and songwriting are as much of an evolution from Messenger as that album was from the EPs. Unless fans are married to the style of Nation of Heat, they will definitely dig this album. This sounds a little weird, but this album is so solid that Joe Pug newbies would probably be better served by listening to his earlier stuff first, so that they can more fully appreciate this one.