Fathers throw around a lot of cliches, mainly because they’re true. We spend lots of time pondering the sage-like life lessons we’re going to bestow upon our children, and then we realize that it’s often been better said by people smarter than ourselves.
“Fortune favors the bold.” — Terence
“You make your own luck.” — Hemingway, to his son
“Get busy living or get busy dying.” — Andy Dufresne, in The Shawshank Redemption
Sometimes your kids listen. Sometimes they ignore you, and end up figuring it out on their own. Whatever the case, Joe Pug suddenly decided he was miserable as a playwright student in North Carolina, so he packed his bags and moved to Chicago to be a songwriter. He darted into a studio whenever other musicians couldn’t make their times, and recorded 2008’s fine Nation of Heat EP. He lived on the road like the devil himself was giving chase, and sent out unlimited copies of a two-song sampler CD to any fan who wanted to spread the word (he estimates that he mailed off 15,000 CDs). He released a second EP for free on the Internet. In short, Joe Pug decided to forge his own destiny. At least that’s how his bio reads, and who’s to doubt it? Yeah, there were probably some nights of doubt and hesitation in there, but as metaphor for the straightforward way Joe Pug plays music, a “come Hell or high water” storyline is spot-on.
Messenger marks Pug’s full-length debut, a little more than a year after the solo acoustic songs on Nation of Heat and his earnest live shows began building buzz. Some changes are obvious. The Dylanisms of Heat, a danger to any sincere singer-songwriter trying to find his own voice, are already being dialed down. To some degree, Pug will always collect Dylan comparisons, if only because the two occupy the same reedy, nasally slice of the vocal spectrum. And let’s face it — for certain types of songs, you can’t beat that keening sound.
The other surprise for Pug’s fans may be his use of full-band arrangements or extra instrumentation on some songs. In that vein, it’s a shame that the title track starts off the album. “Messenger” acts as an announcement of sorts, serving notice that Pug is trying new things, but apart from some sweet pedal steel, the song fits neatly into an alt-country template that sounds all too familiar. Much more successful is his re-recording of his own “Speak Plainly, Diana”, which gains a fresh sense of insistence from its electric guitars and layered vocals. The banjo in “The Door Was Always Open” adds to a distinct country lope, and nice touches of pedal steel and harmonica add flavor across the disc.
Despite these newfound flourishes, Pug’s strength remains the straightforward sincerity that comes from just himself, an acoustic guitar, and occasional harmonica. Pug’s arrangements will sound familiar to anyone reasonably well-versed in folky singer-songwriters — there’s only so much you can do with voice and fingerpicked guitar unless you want to go off the rails into deconstruction of song forms or guitar geek territory. Pug’s just another of those performers — like Josh Ritter, Beth Orton, Frank Turner, John Prine, and others — who has that X-factor of charisma to go along with their engaging lyrics. It’s not really the kind of thing you can examine. Some musicians always seem to hit the right notes. Better to just sit back and enjoy a visceral, personal reaction to it.
It doesn’t hurt, though, that some of Messenger‘s acoustic songs are some of Pug’s strongest yet. “How Good You Are” stands as a highlight with its tense guitar and harmonica, while “Not So Sure” is a nice catalog of regrets and memories. Both of them find Pug tweaking his sound in little ways, and finding interesting results along the way. The album’s most ambitious song, especially from a lyrical perspective, is probably “Bury Me Far (From My Uniform)”. Written in the voice of a dead soldier distancing himself from the less than noble goals of man, the song pleads, “the many dead of my comrades all look the same in this place / Won’t you bury me far from my uniform so God will remember my face”.
Overall, Messenger represents a confident step forward from Pug, even if a couple of songs don’t quite click. When he recorded Nation of Heat, there wasn’t time or money to do much more than strap on a guitar and sing. He obviously wasn’t under the gun in the same ways for Messenger, and it’s good to see that he didn’t lose the fire or focus that made those first songs so special.