There’s a visual gag in A Mighty Wind, the 2003 Christopher Guest mockumentary, that charts the career downturn of Mitch Cohen, a fictitious ’60s folkie played by Eugene Levy. As a talking head recounts Mitch’s breakdown following the dissolution of his folk duo, images of his troubled solo records flash onscreen. Their bleak titles and artwork succinctly capture the songwriter’s deteriorating mental state: Cry for Help, followed by Calling It Quits.
Look at PUP’s titles in quick succession—The Dream Is Over, Morbid Stuff, This Place Sucks Ass—and the effect is similar: a portrait of a band spiraling into exhaustion and despair, except with a cathartic grin that lights up during their shout-along gang vocals. No other punk band has taken so much glee in forecasting their own demise. Just as prestige filmmakers love making films about the anguish of making films, PUP is a band that revels in playing songs about the sheer misery of being in a band. Now, half a decade after starting their breakthrough album with a joyful ditty about wanting to murder your bandmate, the Toronto band brings us a supremely hooky, slightly more polished album about harnessing dread to make music to harness dread to.
As usual, the title says it all: THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND. With its jokey piano interludes that satirize a squabbling band’s “board of directors,” the record plays like a concept album about the mental and social deterioration wrought by a decade spent in a moderately successful punk band.
Frontman Stefan Babcock is in his mid-thirties now—“too old for teen angst, too young to be washed,” as he shouts over the grinding, 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 by stage anxiety (“Relentless”), and is so consumed by self-doubt that he projects it onto an inanimate object. Witness “Matilda,” which Babcock wrote from the perspective of a once-beloved, now-neglected guitar that he used to play at every PUP show. “I thought we had more time/I thought I could make it up somehow,” he sings. It’s a goofy premise, and yet Babcock can’t help but imbue the track’s jangly melodicism with a sincere sense of rejection and pain. This is quintessential PUP: Everything’s a joke, until it isn’t.
THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND is PUP’s most expensive-sounding album to date—instead of the basement where they made Morbid Stuff, they recorded in a mansion belonging to indie superproducer Peter Katis—but it doesn’t compromise their perennial underdog status. You might miss the four-dudes-in-a-room stomp of The Dream Is Over, but there are some worthy expansions of the PUP sound here. The group successfully harnesses 808 beats for “Robot Writes a Love Song” and flirts with skittering synthpop on the unabashedly tuneful “Habit”; “PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing For Bankruptcy” recalls Nation of Ulysses with its anarchic saxophone solo. Those piano interludes grow tiresome, like a mid-2000s rap skit whose joke wears thin on repeat listens, but they are mercifully brief.