Posted: by The Editor

The release of 2019’s Morbid Stuff deservedly cemented PUP as one of the biggest punk bands around. The record took all of the rawness, self-deprecation, riffs, and gang vocals that made The Dream Is Over so fantastic and made everything a little bigger. Morbid Stuff was also a little more polished and palatable to a wider audience while still holding onto the group’s nihilistic charm (it was still called Morbid Stuff, after all). That success allowed PUP some time to sit back and focus on the daunting task of following up such a huge album and, in a way, THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND feels like Green Day following the mega-successful Dookie! with the harsh and alienating Insomniac—everything here is darker, heavier, bleaker, and uglier, but no less packed with hooks. The main difference in attitude is that The Unraveling doesn’t feel like the “fuck you” to critics that Insomniac was, but rather PUP finally feeling confident and comfortable enough to make the record they’ve been itching to put out since day one.

The album is cut with three brief interludes featuring Stefan Babcock on piano and vocals that function almost the same way as the chorus in an ancient Greek tragedy, presenting the strophe, antistrophe, and epode at the beginning, middle, and end to break apart the story and set the scene for the audience. Based around board of directors meetings for the band, the three “Four Chords” tracks give listeners an insight into Babcock’s mental state at various points of the record and serve as marking points on the path of the titular unraveling. In the first instance, Babcock is trying to learn piano (“I spent every cent of the label money on this thing”). By the time we reach the midway point, money is dwindling, no one can agree, and Babcock votes “to end democracy in this fucking band.” Finally, on “Four Chords Pt. III: Diminishing Returns,” Babcock gets halfway through the opening line, gives up, says “that’s it” and walks away with the unraveling complete.

Although Babcock is presented as the main character of THE UNRAVELING, PUP has always been a band built on the strength of the combination of its members, and they have paradoxically never sounded as unleashed and experimental or as tight and in the pocket as they do here. The manic instrumentation that has always backed Babcock’s raw vocals is still present, but PUP seem willing to shove more riffs and fills into these new songs, resulting in a frantic and swirling sound that gets slowly more unhinged as the record goes.

After “Four Chords,” the album kicks off with three tunes already put out as singles, with “Totally Fine” coming in strong and feeling like classic PUP with the refrain of “lately I’ve started to feel like I’m slowly dying / and if I’m being real I don’t even mind / whether I’m at my worst or I’m totally fine” followed by a ripping guitar run. Things pull back in the bridge before slingshotting back into the massive chorus, this time full of fantastic drumwork by Zack Mykula who really makes his presence known off the bat. “Robot Writes a Love Song” is equally catchy and brings in acoustic guitar and some wacky lyrics, as the group somehow makes a singalong out of the line “I’m wearing cargo shorts down in Florida.” 

These tunes are followed by “Matilda” and “Relentless,” two excellent and manic songs that start to point towards the unraveling of the sound built up on the first two tracks. A tribute to Babcock’s favorite shitty guitar, “Matilda” also doubles as a look at the clash of wanting to create music as a form artistic expression versus needing to put out records and tour to make a living that bubbles under the surface of the entire record with the notion of PUP doubling as both a band and corporation with shareholders to please. Built around an intense guitar riff that matches the title, “Relentless” feels like a turning point on the record where things start to get harsher, as heavy guitars take over the verses in opposition to the chorus of “fuck all the dread / it’s endless,” which plays as one of the quieter and reserved moments on the record until the final pass through with multiple guitars flying on top of the vocals.

“Relentless” is followed by “Four Chords Pt. II: Five Chords,” creating a nice break between the two halves of the record, and leading into “Waiting,” which starts with the most aggressive riff yet as Babcock spits out lyrics like “200 bucks a week to talk about my lack of direction?” The chorus is massive and Steve Sladkowski’s guitar lines keep pushing boundaries, growing more and more intense as the song and record go on. It’s followed up by “Habits,” which may be PUP’s most experimental song to date, starting with electronic drums and synths before the live instruments subtly take precedence. The rhythms are off-kilter in a way that draws you in as much as the lyrics like “told you I’m doing just fine, but to tell the truth / I feel like total shit whenever I’m with you / but I don’t change, I just push right through,” and the final chorus should fit perfectly as a singalong in the group’s live set.

Sladkowski’s guitar work is one of the highlights of the record throughout, but it might be the more pulled-back “Cutting Off The Corners” where he shines the most with a simple, but haunting riff that almost overshadows the vocal melody of the chorus and an extended solo in the middle of the track. Tempo-wise, it might be the slowest song PUP has put out (alongside “City” off Morbid Stuff), and it’s impressive that it’s also one of the strongest tracks on the record as it finds the band rocking out without their usual breakneck paces. Things don’t stay so reserved forever as “Grim Reaping” kicks in with a wild riff that hearkens back to the feel of  PUP’s raw debut record before blowing up into a fanfare of horns overtop of one of Nestor Chumak’s more prominent and melodic basslines. 

After one last “Four Chords” interlude, PUP end the record on top of their game, sounding as strong as they have at any point over their discography on “PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing For Bankruptcy.” The opening riff is equally aggressive and catchy, returning throughout the song to launch the band into each new verse, and the self-reflective lyrics work as Babcock’s commentary on the band and his career with lines like “I used to be reckless and too broke to eat / now all of my friends have bidets in their en suites” and “I’m failing upwards again / I might pull it off / If I don’t fuck this up before it pays off.” After the guitar and saxophone go wild for a moment, sounding like the song is about to crash, things stop for an acoustic/gang vocals break of “there’s no place I’d rather be instead / even though everybody here is fucked in the head / I’m truly grateful for the life that I’ve led / I’m just being dramatic” which may as well serve as the band’s mantra.

Not to beat the PUP-as-Greek-tragedy metaphor to the ground, but it’s hard not to think of the importance of catharsis in both while listening to THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND. Greek tragedies were said to perform a somewhat cathartic purification of the public—bringing rejuvenation in the same way a religious service is meant to. At this point in PUP’s career, it’s almost cliché to refer to their music and live performances as cathartic, but anyone who has seen the band live knows that’s one of the best words available to describe the experience, and the same feelings carry over to THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND. It’s an album that both fits comfortably alongside the group’s previous records while also sounding not quite like anything they have ever done. It’s as if the group could not help but throw all of these ideas into the record; both challenging and catchy, it’s PUP’s riskiest move yet and the results are fantastic.

Disappointing / Average/ Good / Great / Phenomenal

Aaron Eisenreich | @slobboyreject

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