In the middle of Joe Pug‘s rich new album, The Diving Sun, I found myself completely lost in the rapturous anthem “Deep End”. The song, a desperate, romantic call to commitment, is a microcosm of everything special about Joe Pug’s music, which champions the art of emergence. If there is a central theme in Pug’s body of work, it is never too late to re-invent oneself if one is willing to commit nose to the grindstone. Against whatever odds, a new life is possible. Pug’s biography exemplifies this ethos, with the singer famously leaving college just before graduation and inventing his musical life as he went. It is the stuff of troubadour legend, and his metamorphosis continues with The Diving Sun.
From the beginning of his career, the best of Pug’s music beckons listeners to seek better versions of themselves against all odds. Yes, his characters carry world-weary wisdom, but Pug never lets them bunker down in simple cynicism. What makes Pug unique among singer-songwriters in the Americana tradition is his willingness to embrace the naïveté of inspiration; his songs are brave enough to uplift their audience, urging them to keep stumbling forward in the quest for authenticity.
The inspirational ballads of 2015’s Windfall are perfect examples of this desire to encourage with lyrics like “Don’t back down yet / It’ll get brighter / Stand your ground like a veteran fighter / Grip that wheel just a little bit tighter now.” Few artists could pull off such sincere sweetness as Pug consistently does.
Similarly, “Deep End” is a quintessential Joe Pug song, featuring one character urging another to take chances and stop putting off living. “You’re always waiting for the perfect chance / I’m here to tell you that it don’t exist / So if not now, then when / Shut up / Jump in both feet / Deep end / If not now, then when?” The lyrics feature the hard-won wisdom of the lone troubadour, acknowledging that life comes with pain. What Pug adds to this harsh, existential knowledge is sincerity and a commitment to believing that one is always free to create one’s own life.
All the songs on The Diving Sun bear the recognizable features of Joe Pug’s deeply poetic lyrics. “Outlaw” is a moving reflection of a would-be rebel coming to grips with the reality of his character. “Look Out Desdemona” is a meticulously crafted song about a tortured courtship worthy of Tom Waits himself. All of the album’s eight songs are excellent examples of Pug’s lyrical craftsmanship.
But The Diving Sun also marks a certain musical growth in Pug’s career. Blessed with a unique and emotive singing voice, the Maryland-based singer has shown development in the range and capabilities of his vocals with each album, and here is perhaps his finest performance yet. I’ve always located Pug’s voice in a fascinating location somewhere between Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Gordon Lightfoot, and here he shows a continuing mastery of his instrument.
Furthermore, the singer-songwriter has expanded his instrumental range with this album. By now, Pug has demonstrated mastery of his fingerpicking guitar style, and in most of his songs, the acoustic guitar is the central, if not only instrument. The Diving Sun’s opening number, “Crescent Bridge”, makes an immediate statement about the musician’s growth with its opening piano line and featured harmonica. The album also features accordions and other instruments beyond the guitar, giving his singularly excellent songs a new vibrancy and versatility. This new musical wrinkle highlights “Deep End”, the album’s heart and soul.
Pug notes on his website that the album was initially conceived as collection of B-sides, but quickly turned into a full-fledged musical project recorded during the quarantine that brought the live-music industry to a halt in 2020. This is certainly a case of making lemonade from lemons, as The Diving Sun gives Pug a new chance to shine as a musician.
Joe Pug is an under-appreciated artist in American music. His dedication to craft and the diligent focus he brings to his work come to full fruition on The Diving Sun. Interested listeners can get an insider’s view of Pug’s artistic philosophy by listening to his insightful and fascinating podcast, The Working Songwriter, where he expertly interviews other artists about their careers and artistic processes. Clearly Pug himself has learned much from that project, as his latest album is a career highlight.