On the Canadian punk band’s eponymous debut, he seethed over a girl: “How many times have you lied to my face? / I can’t confront you, it’s better that way.” Two and a half years later, he vented about his bandmates: “If this tour doesn’t kill you, then I will / I hate your guts, and it makes me ill.” Three years after that on one of funniest rock albums of 2019, he pondered about life: “I was bored as fuck / Sitting around and thinking all this morbid stuff / Like, if anyone I’ve slept with is dead.”
So, naturally, you’d expect PUP’s fourth album, THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND, to open with something striking. And it does, but it’s not a strength this time. “Quarterly meetings, the board of directors,” Babcock earnestly sings over sparse piano, “We try and determine how best to proceed / I said I play piano, I started learning last Thursday / I spent every cent of the label money on this thing” is attention-grabbing because it’s a needle scratch. It’s devoid of what makes Babcock such an effective lyricist—bitter self-awareness, cynical humor, naked honesty – and instead seems like a stiff and awkward beginning to a concept album.
But it isn’t. The throughline of PUP’s unraveling really only appears in a trio of songs. The rest of THE UNRAVELING is an unrelated set of splendid compositions. Thus, the trio – opener “Four Chords,” as well as “Four Chords Pt. II: Five Chords” and “Four Chords Pt. III: Diminishing Returns” (perhaps more candid than was intended)—feels like a shoe-horned, half-baked idea. And if the “joke” is that it’s a half-baked idea forced into an album, then that strikes a note of ouroboros-esque banality. (This is perhaps alluded to in “Relentless”: “Right place at the wrong time / Right joke with a bad punchline”.)
The rest of THE UNRAVELING feels like a “proper” PUP album. You’ve got your “standard” PUP rockers – e.g., the exhilarating pair of “Totally Fine” and “Waiting” – that can stand next to their best work; and then you’ve got songs where the band plays with their established sound a bit: they add a pinch of dream pop here (“Relentless”), a dash of power pop there (“Habits”), and a sizeable sprinkling of dance-rock (“Grim Reaping”). The band borrows The Edge’s guitar twinkle for “Matilda” and “Robot Writes A Love Song,” as well.
Similarly, the lyrical themes hop around an overall motif of existential dread – “You’re never totally fine / I’m never totally fine / We’re never totally fine” functions as a makeshift thesis – but without much of a pattern. Breakups, anxiety (perhaps pandemic-related), and a pair of light-hearted songs written from the perspective of a neurotic computer and a lonely guitar, respectively, are all covered, but in no real order. It’s a bit jarring.
THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND, then, is the first misstep for the band, but it’s far from a total loss. Indeed, the go-for-broke nature of closer “PUPTHEBAND Inc. Is Filing For Bankruptcy”– a spritely, multi-part excusion that includes post-punk guitar and a spastic sax solo straight out of The Stooges’ Fun House—singldhandedly demonstrates that the Canadian quartet are more than capable of sonic experimentation with effective (and often exciting) results. Additionally, Babcock’s as funny (“I’ll be honest, it felt pretty great / The free shoes and the critical acclaim / I sold those Nikes, I bought a new guitar case / It’s called protecting your investments”) and as acerbically self-deprecating (“200 bucks a week to talk about my lack of direction? / I got a bit of a complex, in case that wasn’t clear from the last 3 sessions”) as ever. With strong songwriting and stronger melodies throughout, this album is likely a one-off (minor) disappointment, and PUP will equally likely bounce back from it.