PUP are an up-and-coming, Canadian 4 piece punk band, who, since their inception in 2010, have accumulated an impressive fanbase, and a reputation for angry, energetic anthems. The Mic's Hal Hewlett discusses their most recent offering, 'The Unraveling of PUPTheBand'.
A week ago, on the 23rd of March, Toronto punk band PUP played their first show in two years, in anticipation of their new album, The Unraveling of PUPTheBand. PUP’s return comes following their mid-pandemic EP, This Place Sucks Ass, and is their first full-length effort since 2019’s Morbid Stuff, an album that cemented PUP as a band with the artistic chops to stick around. PUP return with something old, something new, something borrowed, and sounding very, very blue.
In the past, PUP have been a band about touring. As early as their 2013 self-titled album, songs like Dark Days spoke strongly about the social hardships of being cooped up on the road. And PUP toured hard - their second LP, The Dream is Over, is famously titled from a point where vocalist Stefan Babcock’s voice was so utterly shot that continuing with music as a career seemed like an impossibility. And if all this subtext wasn’t strong enough for you and you prefer just text, the album literally begins with a song entitled If this Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will. So if PUP’s first three albums have been about touring, then this one is about not touring - being cooped up with your guitar, being stuck inside with music and nowhere to let it out.
"...lyrical trickiness, virtuosic guitar leads and bass and drums that go above and beyond standard punk expectations."
The theme of the album is corporatism, with PUP reimagined as PUPTHEBAND Inc, music chosen for marketability by a board of directors. This concept speaks to the struggle faced by the band - music, especially punk music is born of passion, so what do you do when the passion gets lost? The lyrical theme across this LP is PUP’s strongest yet, with almost every song speaking to this feeling across the band - how do you cope when you feel as though something is coming to an end, not with a bang, but with a whimper?
Much of the album’s first half takes a similar theme - lost love, with some sort of twist. Whether that’s love of a person (as in Robot Writes a Love Song), love of an object (Matilda, named after Babcock’s Gibson Les Paul special, a yellow guitar played so heavily all the paint has been strummed off), or love of life (as in Totally Fine), each song works well in its own niche. Many of these tracks work particularly well in dialogue with PUP’s older songs. Where a track off PUP’s debut, Mabu, was a loving tribute to a car that had lived a good life, Matilda feels as much of an indictment as an elegy, mixing mourning and self-deprecation with slick lyrical proficiency - where Mabu went out on a high note (the band taking the car to a demolition derby for the music video), Matilda (Babcock’s old guitar) has become “only work, and just not working out”.
As well as demonstrating some emotional maturity, these tracks show instrumental proficiency as well - Zack Mykula’s fills on Totally Fine are some of the best drums on any PUP track to date, putting in overtime for a genre that can often phone it in when it comes to rhythm sections. This follows with the rest of the band - lyrical trickiness, virtuosic guitar leads and bass and drums that go above and beyond standard punk expectations. Of course, this is helped greatly by the mixing, which even when not so in tone, remains immaculate in quality. The leads always feel as though they cut through the mix in just the right way, and the backing is always wonderfully heavy - on the final stretch of Totally Fine, the bass hits like meteors, whose shockwaves reverberate back and forth across the rest of the track. On this record, PUP provide a brilliant example of sonic evolution while staying true to their roots.
After the album’s midpoint, the mood takes a vitriolic turn. Waiting features fat, distorted instrumentals, washed-out vocals and lyrics that sound like spit on a black leather boot. It’s PUP returning to their mid-pandemic, This Place Sucks Ass mood, violent and uncaring. It feels good that PUP have elected to keep some of these unapologetically pissed-off bangers, even though their discography has evolved past the more simple punk music that characterised songs like Guilt Trip or Reservoir on their first album.
"...the song feels authentically fragile; you can almost hear Babcock’s teeth rattling around in his skull as his vocals jump and stomp over the grinding instrumentals."
The next song, Habits, takes a u-turn back to the melancholy, with wistful lyrics and synth lines, complete with the same lovely, intricate instrumentation from the rest of the ensemble. Guitarist Steve Sladkowski’s clean, melodic guitar lines are the star of the show as ever on this track, arpeggiating and fuzzing behind Babcock’s crooning, lonely vocals and eventually, a victorious group chorus. In a genre that can often stagnate in the mire of its own iconoclasm, the instrumental skill and breadth shown on Habits is reassuring. This continues onto Cutting Off The Corners, in which the guitar gets a little more plucky in the verses to allow Nestor Chumak’s heavy basslines to come through a bit stronger, playing brilliantly thanks to the aforementioned mixing successes on the record. Eclectic instrumentation choices remain with the brass section on Grim Reaping, combining eerily well with the layers of fuzz that cover the rest of the track.
The album’s closer, PUPTHEBAND Inc Is Filing For Bankruptcy, ties the album together, marrying themes of dissatisfaction, alienation and control in a malicious, darkly catchy tune that features Babcock at his most candid since 2019’s Full Blown Meltdown. Along with simply being angry, the song feels authentically fragile; you can almost hear Babcock’s teeth rattling around in his skull as his vocals jump and stomp over the grinding instrumentals. The album ends as it was - a high note, mottled by questions of what happens next. Babcock says “I’m truly grateful for the life I’ve led, I’m just being dramatic… Thanks for having us, it’s been an honour / I’d just like to thank all the sponsors”. After the fake-out ending on the previous track, it feels strongly reassuring - PUP is back, and they’re not going anywhere.
Beyond just feeling like classic PUP (which is something I would have enthusiastically taken), this album dabbles skilfully in conflicting themes and broad instrumental influences, infusing the modern pop-punk landscape with skilful songwriting, mature and complex themes and maintaining PUP’s talent for having the best hooks in modern pop punk. It’s not perfect, but the cohesion of the album’s corporate theme is surprisingly decently done, and frankly, with songs as good as this, it barely needed it anyway.
Edited by: Elliot Fox
In article images courtesy of PUP via Facebook. Video courtesy of PUP via YouTube.