Chicago’s Joe Pug is a workingman’s singer-songwriter who is slowly building a reputable career by taking personal risks and endearing himself to those who have taken a shine to his soulful and introspective takes on self-realization and myth. He seems to innately understand the nuances of personal identity and has written eloquently on its turbulent affairs on his previous releases. With his latest, The Great Despiser, Pug’s music is moving beyond the DIY-aura as some outside influences like ace producer Brian Deck, Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn, and acclaimed multi-instrumentalist Sam Kassirer have entered the fold and added a richly textured aural feel to the contemplative folk leanings of Pug’s acoustic song structures. The result is a finely crafted eleven track collection that continues to push Joe Pug further into the pantheon of brilliant contemporary modern folk interpreters.
Pug’s career so far has been a bold one, filled with audacious decisions that would scare off more practical minded folks. He dropped out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on the eve of his senior year, picked up a dusty acoustic guitar, and hightailed it north to the Windy City, where he worked as a carpenter by day and folksinger by night, furiously spending time on arrangements that would soon comprise the bulk of material for his debut Nation of Heat EP. He then made the solid decision to turn to the Internet, where he self-released for free the EP to anyone who may have stumbled upon the songs online or became captivated by his various performances around town. With word-of-mouth buzz starting to develop, Pug then was able to pick up both a set of proper backing musicians and a set schedule of studio time, which he put to use to record the lyrically mesmerizing Messenger album in 2010. With its evocative imagery, emotionally flawed characters, and folk canon homages, Pug was immediately branded as a “new Dylan” and added as the opening act to tours for like-minded artists such as Steve Earle, Josh Ritter, and M Ward.
So it comes as little surprise then that a veteran producer like Deck and artists like Finn would want to jump on board and lend support to the next chapter of Pug’s career. And while the guests and production punch add subtly welcome additions here and there, The Great Despiser still finds Pug doing what he does best: writing damn fine folksongs and wistfully plaintive ballads. Album opener “Hymn #76” also seems to hint at some autobiography, as Pug proclaims: “If you are devoted to a dream / Go and light the lantern / Leave your family abandoned / Meet me by the shadow of the stream”. It’s a calling out to the muse, that wandering spirit that tempted and then engulfed the great ones like Hank, Dylan, and Townes. For better or for worse it will take over a life, so if you want to devote your life to following that muse, you must do so completely. Pug has that urge, and his opening lyrical declarations appear to mirror the facts of his life. It’s an honest declaration that gives Pug a credible platform on which to stand and makes the remainder of his lyrical content authentic and believable.
The album also seems to revolve around the theme of taking responsibility and growing from the past. The narrator of the Son Volt-esque title track tries to own up to past digressions to an audience of skeptical family members, while a wiser for the years father figure offers hopeful yet slightly cynical pieces of advice to his son in the near lullaby “A Gentle Few”. Elsewhere, Pug’s characters continue to find their footing, hoping to move forward and live a pure life despite prior indiscretions or constant failings. Like any writer worth their weight, Pug knows that life can be tough and that people are rarely as at fault as they are on their worst days. He comes full circle by album’s end as he declares: “From deep dark wells / Comes pure clean water… / As long as you’re not finished / You can start all over again”. It’s a fitting thematic end to the album and apt advice from an artist whose songwriting is as honest and true as the life he has led up to this point.