An album that builds much of its lyrical imagery from moments of anguish, loss and shadows, Joe Pug’s Windfall nonetheless delivers a sense of imperturbable optimism.
The 30-year-old songwriter, from Austin, Texas by way of Chicago, North Carolina and Maryland, had put his career on hold after canceling the end of his 2013 tour, full of doubts and creatively empty. But time and a re-evaluation of his musical purpose after two well-received albums, Messenger (2010) and The Great Despiser (2012), led Pug in a new direction, out of the singer/songwriter mold he’d been cast in.
On Windfall, Pug steps away from the more traditional Americana for a folk-soul hybrid that places greater emphasis on his vocals. In sound, Windfall is more Jackson Browne or Amos Lee than Steve Earle or John Prine, and it’s a more-than-welcome shift that captures and delivers a stronger, more individual identity than Pug has shown on his first two records.
And it’s no surprise that Windfall is a reflective album about adaptability and resilience, rooted in the sort of big-picture optimism that Pug delivers on the record’s closing chorus: “If it’s not around this corner, it’s around the next.”
“Bright Beginnings” opens the album with finger-picked guitar and crisp piano melody combining for a wistful beauty that frames and echoes Pug’s lyrical meditation on loss and renewal. “Veteran Fighter” follows, a taking-a-drive-to-clear-the-head song about fading dreams, but Pug uses the hard times as a call to arms, a challenge to meet, a reason to dig in and keep going.
In lesser hands, songs of this nature could take on the tone of self-help books, maxims of dubious value. But Pug’s honesty and wordplay combine to levitate the songs over those empty, clichéd realms. And the straightforward, balanced arrangements of acoustic and electric guitars and upright bass, with occasional piano, harmonica and drums, drive the focus to Pug’s vocals.
“O My Chesapeake” is an autobiographical rumination on the nature of home and journeys, and the personal distance between the two. That leads right into “Windfallen,” a song of inner strength and survival, about how the choices in priority and outlook can shape life. It’s here, in describing how the easy ways and shortcuts lead to an emptier realm than the long, patient haul does, that Pug begins pushing the album to its lyrical conclusion.
“If Still It Can’t Be Found” (featuring Wilco’s Pat Sansone on mellotron) is the thematic essence of Windfall. Pug sings about endurance, about walking undaunted ever forward, knowing that the dedicated search isn’t in vain, whether or not you find exactly what you’re looking for in life. It’s a basic and direct message, but the strength in Pug’s song—and the album overall—lies more in his conviction than anything.
Windfall is an album about not just the broken moments and uphill climbs that shape life, but how to exist in those moments, how to draw on core strengths and adapt, how to live through it all and come out stronger.