by Mia Hughes
“I was bored as fuck / Sitting around and thinking all this morbid stuff / Like if anyone I’ve slept with is dead”. Those are the lines that open PUP’s third record Morbid Stuff, for anyone who wasn’t sure what the name was all about. Very morbid stuff.
Still, this is PUP, so that’s no surprise; they’ve always had a penchant for tongue-in-cheek explorations of gloom. Morbid Stuff, with a murderous birthday party on the cover, is the follow-up to the just-as-cheerily-titled The Dream Is Over, the cover of which depicts a person reading a newspaper on a couch engulfed by flames. That record had songs called ‘Can’t Win’, ‘If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will’ and ‘My Life Is Over And I Couldn’t Be Happier’, the lyrical content being pretty much as you’d expect based on those titles. Even the band name itself supposedly stands for ‘Pathetic Use of Potential’. So two things about PUP we can be sure of: 1) They don’t write happy songs. 2) The songs they do write are the most exciting punk songs of the 21st century.
PUP are so exciting in part because they don’t sound like anyone else in the crowded field of modern punk. Lead guitarist Steve Sladkowski was a jazz student, while vocalist and songwriter Stefan Babcock has, by his own admission, little technical knowledge or understanding of concepts like time signatures. That combination allows Babcock to follow his instincts in a way often suffocated by classical training, while the rest of the band – Sladkowski, bassist Nestor Chumak and drummer Zack Mykula, himself a key part of the band’s musicality in his brilliant incorporation of time signature changes – have the expertise to keep up with Babcock’s ideas and shape them into form. Sladkowski’s solos in particular have been highlights throughout the band’s discography, with Morbid Stuff introducing some worthy new additions in ‘Kids’ and ‘Free At Last’. The songs themselves are mostly concerned with improving rather than reinventing the path PUP have beaten with past releases (and that’s no complaint, since the path is a great one) but there’s a few promising left turns, like the folky campfire intro of ‘Scorpion Hill’ or, in the other direction, the post-hardcore rage of ‘Full Blown Meltdown’, which sounds like a distinctly PUP spin on Drive Like Jehu or Quicksand.
The music on Morbid Stuff is as incredible as it’s ever been. But great music – as far as punk rock goes, anyway – is only a foundation. What matters more, what really makes a punk rock band exciting, is that they mean something. As anyone who’s ever seen a PUP show, or more importantly a PUP crowd, will attest: PUP mean something. And what they mean isn’t morbidity – the opposite, in fact.
But we’ll get to that, because morbidity and pessimism are integral to Morbid Stuff. The chorus of ‘Free At Last’ sneers, ‘Just ‘cause you’re sad again, it doesn’t make you special / I’m waking up again, knowing nothing really matters at all’. ‘Kids’, the record’s lead single (and maybe even a love song by PUP standards), opens with: ‘Just like the kids, I’ve been navigating my way through the mind-numbing reality of a godless existence’. More than once, Babcock’s nihilism extends to fantasising about the actual end of the world; on ‘See You At Your Funeral’, he sings: ‘I hope the world explodes, I hope that we all die’, and on ‘Scorpion Hill’: ‘If the world is gonna burn, everyone should get a turn to light it up’. Lyrics like these are reflections of the anxieties and depressions that Babcock himself faces, but also the ones that come with being a human in 2019, as technology sells our personal data, we watch society collapse over Twitter and the planet literally dies. It’s hard not to be a nihilist these days.
Of course, that means that even nihilism can be capitalised on, and therefore nihilism will be capitalised on. All too often, the artists speaking most vulnerably and honestly about depression are pushed through the marketing wringer and sold to equally vulnerable fans as their saviour, until they have almost no choice but to stay in that misery for the sake of branding. PUP, it seems, are aware that there are those who would have them fall into that trap, and on album highlight ‘Full Blown Meltdown’ Babcock tackles it with palpable fury. “How long will self-destruction be alluring? / It’s good for business, and baby, business is booming,” he cries, before continuing, “I’ll be sure to write down when I hit rock bottom / For all the people who love to fetishise problems”.
See, PUP is no commodity, and even though Babcock’s lyrics drip with cynicism, the band itself is as pure as it gets. What makes them the most exciting punk band of modern times isn’t that they’re playing songs about pessimism, rage, depression, morbidity and nihilism; it’s that they really, really mean it. That’s why Babcock sings until his vocal cords literally tear; it’s why fans consistently pack into sweaty rooms to lose their shit in a crazed, limb-swinging, cathartic frenzy. Morbid Stuff is the best document yet of a band that, even at their most morbid, are unmistakeably alive.