BY Adam FeibelPublished Mar 29, 2022

PUP have always known that misery loves company. While their music exists in the same space as the type of posi-punk that promises any loser or screwup can find salvation in beer-soaked power chords, they've taken on a different philosophy. For PUP, it's not really about feeling better — it's about crawling through the miles of mud and shit together.

The Toronto foursome basically perfected that idea of triumphant commiseration on their third album, 2019's Morbid Stuff, which earned them critical acclaim, their late-night debut and a Juno Award. You might think that getting up on a stage and airing their grievances to swaths of sweaty, adoring fans night after night could help them come to better terms with the various anxieties, neuroses and self-destructive proclivities they sing at the top of their lungs, but that wouldn't really be PUP. Instead, THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND, the group's fourth album, continues their arc with an even sharper nosedive into existential dread, hopelessness and total calamity.

When singer Stefan Babcock accidentally-on-purpose plays a sour note during "Four Chords" and then mutters a contemptful "fuck," it's a moment that sums up the PUP mindset just about as well as any lyric could. Screw up, curse yourself, and move on. Later, play the tape back for further analysis. Repeat as necessary. "It's honestly starting to seem like an art / How we keep tearing ourselves apart," Babcock sings in "Grim Reaping," picking apart these acts of self-judgment and internal doomsaying amid a clash of guitars that sort of brings At the Drive-In to mind. "I've got a bit of a complex / In case that wasn't clear from the last three sessions," he snarls in the thrash-metally "Waiting," a wink to those who have sung along with their shared gripes and groans over the course of the band's previous three records. "Lately I've started to feel like I'm slowly dying / And if I'm being real, I don't even mind," he ruminates in the choppy and poppy "Totally Fine," reluctantly accepting whatever comes his way. 

Fittingly, PUP's approach to their craft as musicians has gotten more streamlined while simultaneously becoming even more unpredictable. You've got all the catchy, fast-paced melodies, big singalongs, and ooh-oohs and whoa-oas that you could want in a PUP record, along with even more of the kind of outrageous metal riffing you'd hear spilling out of the garage of the smelliest kids at your high school. Meanwhile, they sneak in Latin rhythms, a blues-rock solo, church-like harmonies, and lyrics written from the POV of a heartbroken robot and an old, neglected guitar. They've added piano, synths, horns and more, which are not just a more diverse array of musical instruments but also an expanded arsenal of agents of chaos. And you'll hear vocal features by Sarah Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties, Kathryn McCauhey of NOBRO, Melanie St-Pierre of Casper Skulls and Erik Paulson of Remo Drive, lending several more voices to back up Babcock's patented nasally shout. It's all held together by the studio work of Peter Katis, who's applied a thick coating of dirt and grit that covers even their sweetest melodies.

The mess and chaos is clearly intentional. If PUP are going to write music that's beautiful, they have to do their best to also make it ugly. And while it's not a word you might normally think to use to describe PUP's music, there is quite a bit of beauty here. "Robot Writes a Love Song" has one of the best choruses they've ever written (it's that first one, if you're wondering), even if its central analogy doesn't hold up quite as well as "Matilda" (which has its own pretty chorus!). "Habits" has a swinging rhythm, strong dynamics and crafty instrumentation, along with one of Babcock's truest lyrics: "I've gotta change these habits." The band play more quietly and ruminatively than ever on the slow-burning "Cutting Off the Corners"; it's far from their best song, but it's a great way of showing that they've got another gear in them. They show similar restraint in "Relentless," where they pull back for the choruses instead of going for another all-out anthem as Babcock delivers another signature line: "Fuck all the dread / It's endless." 

All the while, PUP sound like they're on the verge of a total implosion (or a full-blown meltdown, if you will). They're not alone: There's plenty of commiseration going around in today's punk-rock scene. A band like Drug Church will attack their problems with bludgeoning force, while someone like Jeff Rosenstock will vent his anger with gleeful abandon. Rather than direct their rage in outward directions, PUP prefer to burn an effigy of themselves. It's punk rock for people who are prone to self-criticism, self-sabotage and self-loathing, and who can sing along with others who are guilty of the same frustrations and self-destructive behaviours with the knowledge that it's not just them. Even with their dour outlooks, they can rely on the rousing chants of big, fun pop-punk choruses to turn it into a good time. 

Yet for all of its big, fun pop-punk choruses, THE UNRAVELING doesn't always feel like a rallying cry. The record's recurring theme is the band cosplaying as a corporate entity (giving the adage of "misery loves company" a double meaning, in this case), and with it comes a bit of unfocused satire that directs its criticism not as much toward the system of capitalism and consumerism and more so toward random passersby. By the time they close things out with the supremely noisy closing act "PUPTHEBAND Inc. is Filing for Bankruptcy," you're more likely to be left not with a feeling of fun-filled camaraderie but with an alienating sense of bitterness. For all of their negativity, the best PUP songs remind fans that they're not the only ones going through this. Here, it feels at times like they're marooning themselves on a desert island and their only goal is survival. You want to root for these guys, so their commitment to self-sabotage can be hard to stomach. If Morbid Stuff taught us that anger can be liberating, this record teaches us that anger can also be limiting. 

What it shows, though, is that PUP are, of course, not infallible. In fact, their whole career is based on the notion that they are extremely fallible. They're just as susceptible to being subsumed by cynicism as anyone else — and given their well-documented political awareness, social conscience and, well, mental not-so-greatness, they're probably more susceptible than the average person. And let's face it, the years since Morbid Stuff have not been especially kind. The band looked at a time when war, division and greed are in a bull market while hope, kindness and positivity are in the toilet, and they wrote a record that reflects that reality with all the nastiness they figure it deserves. If there's anything to be said about THE UNRAVELING, it's that PUP have remained true to themselves.
(Little Dipper/Universal)

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