Joe Pug – The Great Despiser [Album Review]

by oz on May 1, 2012

I once said that it’s hard to put a price tag on Joe Pug’s music. I received his debut EP Nation of Heat in the mail while living in Northern California, shortly after moving away from Chicago. His debut LP Messenger arrived while living in Atlanta, shortly after leaving California. And now his sophomore LP, The Great Despiser, arrived after settling down in Kansas City. This journey, all over the course of just six years, has been one filled with emotions and experiences that range from the absolute best moments in my life to the absolute worst.

So maybe it’s the nature of my journey that drew me to Joe Pug’s music. I’m not sure that there’s a songwriter alive that instinctively understands the human condition quite like Joe Pug. His words have a magical ability to lead a listener to inner demons, self-discovery, healing, humility, and a healthy dose of laughter. Such is the case when I heard the last song on The Great Despiser, a Tex Thomas cover called “Deep Dark Wells.” Out of nowhere, as the song ended, I found myself reduced to tears.

You see, I don’t have a therapist and I’m not much of a talker when it comes to emotions. But over my six year journey, I’ve had my share of highs and lows. Celebration and tragedy. I married the love of my life, left one job for a better one, found myself in a lawsuit, saw the birth of my two beautiful kids, and stood by a family member during a difficult divorce. We also lost one member of our family to addiction. And then nearly another.

I was reflecting one day on these two brilliant, yet troubled people. I pictured the two men sitting at a table – a bottle sits between them. It has the capacity to kill them both. Don’t they understand? They both have one decision to make: live or die. Somehow, one man finds the strength to walk away. The other stays. One overcomes his demons and shows resilience. The other is engulfed in his burdens and leaves his family, this world, behind. I started to ask myself “Why?” and then I heard Joe’s acoustic and lyrics from “Deep Dark Wells” in my headphones:

From deep dark wells
Comes pure clean water
And the ice will melt
As the day gets hotter
And the night grows old
As the sun climbs into the sky

When now is then
And tomorrow’s coming
And where you’ve been
Starts meaning something
As long as you can
Just keep stumbling ahead

As long as you’re not finished
You can start all over again
As long as you’re not finished
You can start all over again
You can start all over again

Impeccable timing to surface some deep-seeded emotions.  Joe’s acoustic is accompanied by Greg Tuohey’s electric in a brief, subtle and gorgeous solo. The song is refreshing because it’s a motivational-type song, but without grand out-of-reach expectations. I fell in love with the line, “As long as you can, just keep stumblin’ ahead.” Does it get any simpler than that? It doesn’t have to be pretty and you may fall a time or two, but keep moving ahead. He repeats the chorus throughout the song, searing the message into into your being. “As long as you’re not finished, you can start all over again.” In fact, my emotions didn’t hit me until the third or fourth time I heard the chorus repeated. It felt like that scene in Good Will Hunting when Robin Williams kept saying to Matt Damon “It’s not your fault” over and over until he wet himself.

I think this is why Pug’s growing fan base is so loyal. We identify with his music in a very personal way and we feel a sense of kinship with him as a person – as if we’ve known him for years. And now, with the release of The Great Despiser, we’re treated to Joe’s best work to date. The album is surprisingly better in every possible way. His vocals are softer and more confident. His sound is fuller with help from a band consisting of an upright base and electric guitar. And I didn’t think it was possible, but his songwriting is much better with lyrics that are less literal, leaving more for interpretation by the listener. His lyrical prowess is immediately evident in the first lines of opening song, “Hymn 76.”

To meet me is to dare into the darkness
But if you are devoted to a dream
Go and light the lantern
leave your family abandoned
Meet me by the shallows of the stream
O meet me by the shallows of the stream

I would normally call out other standout tracks, but there’s no shortage of them. I asked a few friends over an email to name their favorite tune and each responded differently – Hymn 76, The Great Despiser, Silver Hearts and Violins, One of Many.

“One of Many” has become my favorite. It’s the most abstract from a lyrical standpoint and I find myself increasingly frustrated in trying to understand its meaning:

As the only child / for a hundred miles / living in the land of plenty
You could raise your cup / anytime you want / and never find it empty
But your plate was flush / and you had so much / while others had not any
As you lay in bed / well they shaved your head / now you’re one of many
O now you’re one of many

It was hard to breathe / when you knew no need / the crown it lay say heavy
At night you slept / underneath your bed / with both your pistols ready
But they stole your robes / and now your clothes / they won’t sell for a penny
You’re free to rest / your naked chest / now you’re one of many
O now you’re one of many

As a traveler / in the wider world / the road was never friendly
So you turned around / you were homeward bound / at the tender age of twenty
When you arrived / you cried to find / your mother had no memory
Once you were her only son/ Now, you’re one of many
O now you’re one of many

Joe Pug is the embodiment of all that’s good in music and I’m one of his most grateful fans. I can’t put a price tag on his music because it has been stitched into the fabric of my life since I first heard “Hymn 101” off his Nation of Heat EP. My journey through life is different from yours, but we’re all on one and each comes with its share of ups and downs. If not Joe Pug, I hope that everyone has an artist, a song, or a note of music that makes the highs higher and helps cushion the falls.

The Great Despiser is out now, so feel free to pick it up. You’ll also find him touring all over the country. For more, check out our last session with Joe Pug for some free downloads and videos.

Joe Pug – One of Many

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

gordon patriarca May 1, 2012 at 11:56 pm

For the record ( ha ) I am the bassist on this disc. there is no “upright bass” there is, however, electric bass and acoustic bass guitar. Cheers GP

Woody May 2, 2012 at 10:22 am

Great album. Great review.

Becky May 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm

I’m not sure I would say I like every song on ‘The Great Despiser’ better than those on previous albums. There are several that I love from ‘Messenger.’ But I agree that Joe’s songs touch your soul, and I am greatly looking forward to hearing him in person this spring.

oz May 3, 2012 at 5:41 pm

To be clear, I meant to say that I think the album as a whole is his best yet. I do not think that every song on this album is better than all others from previous albums.

greg May 8, 2012 at 10:21 pm

I saw Joe open for Jason Isbell recently. What a great show; it was hard to decide who I liked more. Both were fantastic. And that was before the new album came out.

Aime Nadeau May 14, 2012 at 1:48 am

I thought the exact same thing about Good Will Hunting when I saw this youtube video of Joe Pug performing Deep Dark Wells. He steps away from the microphone and toward the audience like he is really trying to get them to believe “you can start all over again”.

oz May 14, 2012 at 10:19 am

Ha! I took that video in Atlanta! Great show.

Becky May 14, 2012 at 12:49 pm

I absolutely love the bass on this record, whether it is acoustic or electric! This record as a whole sometimes reduces me to tears and at other times, it just amazes me with the wisdom of the lyrics. My college age son introduced me to Joe’s music, so I am old enough to know that most young adults are not nearly this perceptive. This is definitely Joe’s most abstract and metaphorical album, and that allows listeners to take what they want or need to from each song. It hasn’t surpassed ‘Messenger’ for me, though, at least not yet.

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