“Are you sure you hippies aren’t too tired from smokin’ weed and hula hoopin’ all day?”
These were the words coming out of Stefon Babcock’s mouth during PUP’s 2014 set at the Hillside Festival in Guelph. Hillside being a festival known for events like “The SundayMorning Gospel Session” and it’s family-friendly atmosphere, the next 20 minutes of PUP’s set were the stuff of legends. The mostly-teenaged crowd, sweaty and tired from the volunteering at the festival, needed to be held back from demolishing the stage by a wall of 6 NFL linebacker-sized security. PUP played with their trademark ferocity, at one point covering the Beastie Boy’s “Sabotage” ( Babcock introduced it as a Cancer Bats cover, another hard-touring Ontario punk band). The next day, Babcock would drive his family car in a demo derby in my (sorta) hometown of Fergus, Ontario. If there’s one thing that can be said about PUP, they love to leave a trail of destruction in their wake.
Of course, that has a way of taking its toll on a band and “The Dream Is Over” is tantamount to that. Inspired by the words of a doctor who told Babcock that his vocal chords were out of commission, “The Dream Is Over ” dives deep into the pains of being a band that is constantly on the road (they played over 250 shows in one year). It also explores one of thee most painful things of all: being alive.
The first 7 minutes, 46 seconds of the record manage to do just that. Singles: “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will”, “DVP” and “Doubts” are little else but a total sonic assault on the listener. Wheras their self-titled debut dealt more with the aftermath of a broken relationship, this chronicles the deterioration of one. Babcock’s family car makes an appearance on “Sleep in The Heat”, which sounds like a horrible story about returning home to find a lover dead; until you realize it’s about a Subaru. PUP also love diving into to literary-style lyrics that are truly Canadian. “The Coast” describes a small lakeside town where drowning deaths are just a sad fact of life (“the lake needs to eat like all living things, and it’s hungriest in the spring”). Just about every song is a highlight. Album ender “Pine Point” describes a dark life in a small secluded town (Pine Point, Northwest Territories) where there is little hope to hold on to, but you’ll be damned if you don’t hold on. Gang vocals abound all throughout the songs, a reminder that even though you’ve been on the road for months and you hate the other three scumbags around you, you’re still in this together.
PUP’s greatest strengths come from a variety of sources, but an incredibly important one would be how they’ve managed to transcend genres. They act like a punk band (wild shows, loud tunes, a slot on Warped Tour), but the songs themselves defy labels. “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You…”’s open-ended structure smashes the verse-chorus-bridge approach, and instead feels like you’re peering in through a tour-van window at an open page of PUP’s diary. It manages to capture an flow of consciousness, going from “I hate your guts” to “Why can’t everybody just chill?”. It’s an free-form anthem that manages to fully pull off a line about power-drill-related ocular-mutilation, and it’s great. Not to be overlooked, Guitarist Steve Sladkowski continues to play riffs and leads that truly defy expectations. It makes PUP’s music not only a great soundtrack for smashing drywall and fluorescent lightbulbs, but also incredibly interesting to listen to.
There is something existential about PUP. They’re a band that isn’t talking about a “Rock and Roll” heaven or hell. It’s as if their tour van is Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, only to run out of gas. It’s doing 180 on the Don Valley Parkway because there’s nowhere else for it to go. It’s realizing that having “nowhere else that you want to be” can feel like being trapped in some kind of awful dream. For PUP, it seems like the dream is truly over, but the nightmare is only beginning.
review by Graham Caldwell