Thursday, July 9, 2009
Every so often, an artist slips quietly onto a dimly lit stage, silencing the restless audience and stunning the open-mouthed music world with a message so touching, it transcends words, and penetrates human feeling. It blankets the spectrum, appealing to the anxious introvert, the confident lover, the struggling mother, the euphoric child, the bare-bones soul present in all of us. Joe Pug is that artist. Though Pug possesses the somber, time-weary voice of a battered, wizened man, surviving a life of tumult and heartache bearing nothing but the guitar on his back and phlegm in his throat, this folksy maestro from Chicago, Illinois happens to be a mere 20 years old, the first amazing feat by this incredibly promising, captivating young artist. Pug, who studied playwrighting at North Carolina before moving to Chicago and performed his first show just TWO months ago, isn't necessarily oozing with musical innovation here, as the inevitable Bob Dylan comparisons will be rushing through the floodgates as soon as more critics get their grubby hands on his material (his rapid ascension to this past summer's Lollapalooza sums up that meteoric rise), but music hasn't been this lyrically refreshing or this painfully visceral in quite some time. It certainly hasn't been produced this quickly, with such explosive lyrics and contrite emotion, by someone so young.
On Pug's succint 7-song EP, Nation of Heat (only a prelude to his upcoming 2009 album), he solidifies himself as one of the most scintillating young artists in the country, bringing the soulful yearning of the harmonica to the forefront of his music and using the acoustic guitar as a gentle complement to the real stars of the show, Pug's lyrics. Pug preaches of human yearning, politcal unrest, the dualing quests for autonomy and happiness, and social change, occasionally mocking an apathetic American culture behind a harmonica drenched folk tune and a drawling, enthralling voice that sounds strained, reflective, and confident in the potent ambiguity present in each precious syllable. His swooping metaphors, social vendettas, and nearly naked musical accompaniment will evoke comparisons with everyone from Dylan himself to Josh Ritter and Pug's occasional tour-mate, Justin Townes Earle. His music, tragic while blatantly fiery and proud at the same time, contains a bevy of country influences to go along with the obvious aura of folk, and Pug's unabashed plunge into the lost pursuit of basic, acoustic artistry, highlighting the lyrics and the meaning behind them instead of the artificial flash and dash that are so popular in mainstream music.
Pug's lyrical and complex metaphors leave the listener with a lingering sense of discontentment, the ultimate compliment to an artist, and his minimalist approach to the music, using only his acoustic guitar and a harmonica to accompany the words, places focus on the poetry and emphasizes the stark lyrical beauty contained in every deceptively simple gem that he produces. One could even say that his bare-bones approach is a blatant disregard for cultural standards. The listener is transplanted into Pug's restless psyche, searching for that last grasp of peace, that slice of nostalgic love and fulfillment that defines the never-ending spiritual journey of man. The brilliance of this EP is that each song can stand on its own, as a condensed, singular story focused on some feeling, character, or theme. Rarely can an artist fit each piece together with such flowing, cooperative cadence, yet still take it apart and scatter each song as a separate jewel, standing strong on its own accord.
The EP begins with the impossibly epic "Hymn #101," a poetic masterpiece spoken like a winding, heart-wrenching narrative, as if Pug is stumbling through an introspective journey filled with soaring highs and steep lows, and the listener can't help but stare and become swallowed up in Pug's quasi-mournful, passionate quest for the human spirit. When Pug says that he "comes to test the timber of my heart," nobody is disputing its rigid strength or brilliant sincerity. Next up is "Call it What You Will," a gravelly country piece, and perhaps the most empathetic song on the EP. Using sharp imagery and methodical, somber storytelling techniques, Pug appeals to the despairing lover, a universal theme, filled with the bitter pessimism that "words are just words" and can do nothing to mend his broken heart. "Nobody's Man" is an explosive cry for leaving a mark, becoming something other than a nameless face at the "bottom of the pile." The listener can feel the life pulsating from Pug's veins, and the desire to be alive, more than just a drone on default settings, rages throughout his every being. "Hymn #35" is a hauntingly beautiful, hypnotic portrait of a man, a paradoxical man who doesn't need to know where he is going, but just the fact that he is traveling somewhere, however aimless, is enough to keep the inner light burning. Impeccable stretches of harmonica break up the snippets of contradictory verse, and the listener feels one with Pug on his foggy journey yet again in this isolated chapter of his story.
"I Do my Father's Drugs" is a caustic, subtly biting piece about the shackles and constraints of those who came before us, and a cry for defining one's own individuality instead of following in a long line of idiocy and blind succession, hacking one's own path out of society's mess of wilderness. The veiled shot at "Dubya" is sure to incite the wanna-be activist in all of us, but this song is about much more than politics and Bush, as Pug addresses everything from the commercialization of patriotism and the cheapening of American values to the empty causes of war. "Speak Plainly Diana" is a sublime piece about the blurred ambiguity of relationships, and learning to accept and understand life's cruel, ever-changing journey. The unique, thumping guitar and soulful harmonica underlie Pug's quiet struggle, all contributing to this being my favorite song on the whole she-bang. Finally, the culmination of this EP materializes in the title track, "Nation of Heat." A gritty, brutally honest portrait of American life, one can just imagine rolling down the plains of the heartland, the flashes of suffering faces and run-down buildings acting as a symbol of the people's desperation, of hope, of the struggle to survive and thrive another day in this dog-eat-dog land of competition and greed. It is a fitting end to this EP, leaving a hardened, lasting impression on an emotionally exhausted listener. The 7-tracks turn out to be just barely enough for us to handle. Please, check this out, and you will be blessed with a rare lyrical experience that only comes around every so often. This isn't a man who will convert to radio luxuries, but with this once-in-a-generation talent, catch Pug at your college town bar joint before his loyal following skyrockets past cult status. Pug is "mainstream" only in that nobody who hears his music can deny his rare talent. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not your average Joe.