There’s a visual gag in A mighty windChristopher Guest’s 2003 mockumentary, which trace career downturn by Mitch Cohen, a fictional folk from the 60s played by Eugene Levy. As a talking head recounts Mitch’s collapse following the disbanding of his folk duo, images from his troubled solo records appear onscreen. Their dark titles and artwork succinctly capture the songwriter’s deteriorated mental state: Shout for help, followed by Call him quit.
Watch PUP titles in quick succession—The dream is over, Morbid stuff, This place sucks ass– and the effect is similar: a portrait of a group sinking into exhaustion and despair, except with a cathartic smile that lights up during their gang cries. No other punk band had as much fun predicting their own demise. Just like prestigious filmmakers love manufacturing movies about the angst of making movies, PUP is a band that loves playing songs about the misery of being in a band. Now, half a decade after starting their breakthrough album with a joyous ditty on want to assassinate your teammatethe Toronto group offers us an extremely catchy album, a little more refined, on the exploitation of fear to make music to exploit fear.
As usual, the title says it all: HOW PUPTHEBAND WORKS. With its wacky piano interludes that satirize the “board of directors” of a bickering band, the record plays like a concept album about the mental and social deterioration wrought by a decade spent in a moderately successful punk band. .
Singer Stefan Babcock is now in his mid-30s – “too old for teenage angst, too young to wash off”, as he shouts over the post-hardcore riffage of a song called “PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing For Bankruptcy”. He lashes out at friends who haven’t listened to new music since college (“Four Chords”), feels overwhelmed with stage anxiety (“Relentless”), and is so plagued with doubt throw it at an inanimate object. Witness “Matilda,” which Babcock wrote from the perspective of a once-beloved, now overlooked guitar he used to play on every PUP show. “I thought we had more time / I thought I could make it up somehow,” he sings. It’s an awkward premise, and yet Babcock can’t help but imbue the track’s boisterous melody with a heartfelt sense of rejection and pain. It’s the quintessential PUP: it’s all a joke, until it’s not.
HOW PUPTHEBAND WORKS is PUP’s most expensive album to date – instead of the basement they made Morbid stuff, they recorded at a mansion owned by indie superproducer Peter Katis, but that doesn’t compromise their perennial underdog status. You might miss the four-guy one-room trampling The dream is over, but there are some PUP sound worthy extensions here. The group successfully exploits 808 beats for “Robot Writes a Love Song” and flirts with flickering synthpop on “Habit” unashamedly. “PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing For Bankruptcy” brings to mind Nation of Ulysses with its anarchic sax solo. These piano interludes get boring, like a mid-2000s rap sketch whose joke wears thin on repeated listens, but they’re thankfully brief.