Morbid Stuff is an album that revels in the cynicism and self-doubt of modern living. It’s the sound of Vancouver-based band PUP forging rousing, anthemic punk from the most jagged rocks mined from the depths of frontman Stefan Babcock’s psyche. A nihilistic party where heartache and pain dance with numerous partners like self-loathing, shattered dreams, anxiety, and hopeless inadequacy. Still, a party needs a soundtrack and PUP provide the best one they possibly can. Somehow, spinning hummable hooks and catchy choruses from the suffocating web of one’s own misery, PUP find something positive in the pain – before surrendering to the realization of just how ridiculous life really is.
It’s very easy to lose yourself in the labyrinth of your mind when you have too much time to think. Babcock concedes that very thing from the very first line as opener “Morbid Thoughts” begins with the line, “I was bored as fuck / Sitting around thinking all this morbid stuff.” There seems to be a tacit understanding that, if the band are going to delve into the depths of Babcock’s soul, then they are going to do it over tight, hook-filled alternative rock songs with each member firing on all cylinders.
The first single from the album, “Kids” comes from the perspective of someone who has found another to tease them back from the cliff edge. As Babcock sings lines like, “I should have tapped out / Given into my demons”, it’s clear that he was as low as anyone could be until he found a partner to share the misery. That one person willing to join him in the saddle and ride the horned demon to oblivion. The world may still be fucked but at least he’s not the only one who thinks it.
The sing-a-along misery anthems keep coming with “Free at Last”, which manages to twist his acknowledgment that he’s not the only one with the black dog on his back into another memorable chorus (“Just cause you’re sad again/ It doesn’t make you special.”) By the time “See You at Your Funeral” comes around, it’s apparent that this is as good as the band have ever sounded as they toss off inspired guitar lead lines and riffs for fun.
“Scorpion Hill” opens like a lost, American standard with Babcock accompanied by wavering acoustic guitar. It’s a song about isolating yourself from the world around you with the full understanding that it is not going to help your fragile mental state. In fact, Babcock seems to be embracing the fact that the darkness is starting to define him (“I’ve been having some pretty dark thoughts / Yeah, I like them a lot.”)
Opening with discordant riffing, “Bloody Mary, Kate and Ashley” possesses one of the standout choruses on the album. All the more surprising as it takes its influence from the Olsen twins and the old folklore about chanting the name “Bloody Mary” three times into the mirror. It epitomizes the band’s ability to make outstanding, deceptively bright and breezy punk rock songs with a darker underbelly.
“Full Blown Meltdown” is exactly that, the sound of a man whose mind seems to be dismantling itself as we listen. The music reflects that with crunching guitars and pummelling drums until Babcock surprises with a self-referential reveal that maybe his mental pain and emotional discomfort are a facet of the fictional Babcock portrayed in song (“And make no mistake / I know what I’m doing / I’m just surprised the world isn’t sick / Of grown men whining like children.”) Followed by a tacit reminder that, ultimately, he’s just a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band. (“You shouldn’t take this so seriously / It’s just music after all”).
After the anthemic bad trip of “Bare Hands”, the album closes with the downbeat “City”. It has a lo-fi almost demo-like quality with simple chords framing Babcock’s conflicting emotions: “There’s this battle raging in me / Don’t want to love you anymore / But I can’t help it.” It ends with a funereal guitar line and rumbling bass that brings the curtain down with the next act tantalizingly unclear. The hope is that Babcock has achieved some catharsis on Morbid Stuff but the album leaves the impression that Babcock has only made basecamp in the uphill struggle to come.
Make no mistake, Morbid Thoughts is an inspired, catchy punk album, full of punchy, soon-to-be anthems that will please old fans and hook newer ones. However, it is also something else. A brave acknowledgment that life isn’t easy and sometimes the worst enemy is that inner voice, hell-bent on beating you down at every turn.