No one expected PUP to make it this far. Before this year, the Toronto punks had put together three excellent collections of Top 40-caliber choruses and fuzzy, methodical punk riffs. Still, their early career had several hiccups. Following the band’s 2013 self-titled album, PUP toured for nearly two years straight, a time that was marked with the typical pitfalls of touring as a smaller band. After learning that vocalist Stefan Babcock’s vocal cords had a cyst, they named their sophomore album after what his doctor told him: The Dream is Over. Instead, these roadblocks just seemed to push PUP further. Their superpower has always been Babcock’s ragged voice—part-teenage whine, part-hardcore howl—and his lyrics, which are rooted in a deep sense of self-doubt, self-destruction and self-deprecation.
If you’re used to PUP’s dueling guitars and shouted vocals, the opening song off THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND will throw you for a loop. “Four Chords” starts with plunked piano chords, acting as somewhat of an introduction to the album’s expanded sonic palette. THE UNRAVELING has saxophone, trumpets and trombones, but Peter Katis’ production has the album sounding muddier and stranger than The Dream is Over or Morbid Stuff ever did. This album’s guitars have a bit-crushed quality, some of the drums are programmed and the synths are searing. While the production is part of what brings this album down, Babcock’s hooks are still plentiful. The choruses, as always, are what carry PUP through their messiest LP yet.
The opening half of THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND shows the band continuing to do what they’ve always done best. After the feint that is “Four Chords,” you’re thrust into a series of archetypal PUP songs, with clobbering drums and jagged guitar parts sitting next to one another in harmony. “Totally Fine” comes across like a new classic, bolstered by a deceptively huge ending and the verse’s feedback-laced power chords. It comes across in shambles, but that’s exactly the headspace Babcock is trying to convey throughout the song. “I’m never totally fine,” he shouts on the final chorus, contradicting the cheerfulness of the backing vocals and the song’s hints of shaker and piano. Out of any tune here, “Totally Fine” will be in PUP’s setlist for a long time to come.
There’s also the one-two punch of “Robot Writes a Love Song” and “Matilda,” a duo of tunes that are silly in theory but moving in execution. Babcock has always been funny, yet here he expands his deadpan fatalism into something broader. On “Robot Writes a Love Song,” he sings about monitors turning blue, backing up memories and how his wires are getting exposed. There’s a level of cheesy consistency with all of the robot-related puns, but nothing can take away from the sugar-rush of the chorus. It might be the most earnest PUP song yet. Following that is “Matilda,” a song from the perspective of Babcock’s faded Les Paul guitar. With an oddly clean guitar lick and hazy verses, it’s a bummed-out triumph that excels at capturing how objects can hold such deep emotional value. With touches of gang vocals and bluesy piano, PUP make the line “You don’t even write the chords down, you don’t even play me anyhow” hit with real poignancy.
If there’s a villain of THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND, it’s Katis. With his production, some of PUP’s most interesting songwriting turns into overcompressed, maxed-out mush, which is often what makes the second half of the album a drag. “Habits” has confusing chiptune textures, which is most noticeable when it comes to the poorly programmed snare drums. The song is saved by some of Babcock’s most direct lines—“I feel like total shit whenever I’m with you / But I don’t change, I just push right through”—but they’re undermined by Katis’ work here. On “Cutting Off The Corners,” Babcock’s least engaging set of lyrics on THE UNRAVELING is paired with PUP’s biggest weakness: a slow tempo. The song is nearly saved by a striking guitar solo, but there’s no reason for it to sound this sluggish.
Lead single “Waiting” easily wins back a lot of goodwill that is lost throughout the album. In some ways, the song feels assembled from pieces of PUP’s best ideas of the past. You’ve got the shouted therapy references and heavy bass of “Full Blown Meltdown,” the off-kilter guitar solo of “Free at Last” and a chorus that’s worthy of any of the best songs of Morbid Stuff. Even if you’re not sold on the poor production choices or some of Babcock’s lesser lyrics on THE UNRAVELING OF PUPTHEBAND, all of that gets melted away as soon as those enormous choruses and bended guitars chime back in. On their best songs, PUP have always built hooks that can carry entire albums. It’s just unfortunate to see those sing-alongs held back by THE UNRAVELING’s surrounding misfires.
Ethan Gordon is a writer from Pittsburgh who is currently living in Manhattan. His work can be found at Bandcamp, No Ripcord, and others.