Contradictions have dominated PUP’s career from the beginning. Their music is driven by high-spirited instrumentals while the lyrics are steeped in self-pity and cynicism. PUP’s debut was – and remains – a furiously entertaining punk record where up-beat singalongs about murdering exes and pleasant jams about enduring relationships cosy up to each other.
Their sophomore effort is the summation of contradiction. Named after the exact words vocalist Stefan Babcock‘s doctor told him after finding a problem with his vocal chords, ‘The Dream Is Over’ couldn’t be further from the truth. The 2015 record pinned the Toronto group as one of punk’s most promising groups, proving the album’s title wrong. If that was any indication of the contradiction of PUP (Pathetic Use of Potential – the words of Babcock’s grandmother), then ‘Morbid Stuff’ is the full realisation they have been working towards.
PUP’s third record is, by all means, a remarkable album. PUP have encapsulated the temper of previous albums and injected ambition to create something beast-like. With Dave Schiffman at the helm with production, recording and mixing credits, the Canadian group have never sounded so inspired. Across its eleven songs, the band opt for tighter instrumentation, more experimental songwriting and deeper, scathing lyricism. And crucially, it rips.
‘Morbid Stuff’ kicks with the energy of a six year-old on a sugar rush with the biting wisdom of a college student fed up with the world. With Babcock reeling off a list of spiralling worrying thoughts (“Like if anyone I’ve slept with is dead“), it is an open-hearted introduction to an album short of reservations. The title track is at once expansive in its structure and confined by its hermetic rage. As the pulse of Zack Mykula‘s commanding drums heightens, so does PUP’s infectious joy. It is cathartic, chaotic. Contradictory in its tone: “You had it all, you pissed it away” is sung with the condescending tone of someone who only seconds later confesses he is “Back in the city without a care.”
PUP do not just walk that thin line between bratty and brutal, they sprint across it while being chased by the pressures of sensibility. On ‘Closure’, Babcock confronts a topic underrepresented in the pantheon of modern love songs: the onerous process of moving on. Its theme is heavy, doubled down by the battle of guitars at the song’s forefront. “There’s a part of you that’s still a part of me“, Babcock resigns before reaffirming: “I need closure“. With a final act prime for head-banging and harmonised shrieks of “Where do you get off thinking that you could just cut me off?“, the group generously provide an element of community to an otherwise strenuous independent burden.
Throughout ‘Morbid Stuff’ there are attempts at reaching out to more people while tackling one’s demons. There are no mentions of Toronto’s Don Valley this time – their first album to reject a mention of the region. In fact there are no references, no indicators to their origin. Hell, even ‘Scorpion Hill’ is a fictionalised setting. This has allowed PUP to broaden their reach, preventing possible alienation while creating stronger bonds with those that might not know what the Don Valley Creek is.
The aforementioned ‘Scorpion Hill’ is just one example in which PUP successfully develop their songwriting. A segmented vignette involving a protagonist who, in stages, suffers various setbacks, it is performed with the theatrical bombast of a Meat Loaf musical drenched in grounded misery. The song’s final gut-punch hits like the punk ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’.
If attempting a five-minute mini-rock-opera was not enough, the Canadians push their talents further, making a mockery of previous albums. ‘Full Blown Meltdown’ is the most violent song they have conjured up with Mykula’s drums reaching breaking point. The song’s final surge for the finish line incites pits like a Pied Piper luring rats. ‘Bare Hands’ – the most ‘recognisably PUP’ track – unleashes a chorus, peaking through raging guitars, trying to get a word in.
And those choruses do not stop failing to turn up. For all its vitriol, ‘Morbid Stuff’ is laced with choruses that yearn for volume. ‘See You at Your Funeral’ is a car singalong if ever there was one. ‘Bloody Mary, Kate and Ashley’ has a hook so infectious, so delightful, you will forgive the Satanic symbolism. As for ‘Sibling Rivalry’, if the momentous riff that carries it doesn’t satisfy you, the chanted vocals will.
‘Morbid Stuff’ is a complete overhaul for PUP while its cohesive nature is a testement to the band’s determination. The songs easily segue and, when it is needed, are more than happy to take a couple seconds to recover.
Make no mistake, there is a lot of anguish on display here. Stefan Babcock gets a lot off his chest yet never seems overbearing. Is it the humour in which he conveys to poorly mask his pain? “I wanna know what you were thinking when you saw me in the produce section: buying organic food, making healthy selections“, he sings with a fistful of salt. The ways in which he displays his discontent are aplenty, but their utility is united by the intent. The attitude and conviction of the lyrics is what makes the album as strong as it is.
“I hope the world explodes, I hope that we all die“, Babcock gleefully proclaims at one point. If this is PUP driving off the cliff, then they could not have written a better soundtrack. Reading the lyrics, you would think this band are a miserable bunch. Maybe you are right. However, their charm is indisputable: ‘Morbid Stuff’ is a record with relentless entertainment value and enlightening spirit. To be entertaining is one thing, but for it to have some real substance (see: ‘City’ or ‘Closure’) is commendable. This is not just PUP’s best album, it is one of punk’s best this decade. If the world does explode, then at least we can go out with a blast.
‘Morbid Stuff’ is out Friday 5th April via Rise Records