So, if you are a big fan of alt. country/americana/roots music, chances are you have heard of a singer/songwriter our of Chicago named Joe Pug. The guy released a staggeringly good EP in 2008 called Nation of Heat, and since that has been winning audience after audience over with his startlingly fresh take on the well-worn folk troubadour model. Seeing Pug perform live, you almost start believing you know what it must have felt like to see Dylan play the Gaslight in ’62. As cliche as it sounds, Pug holds his audience in the palm of his hand. His songs are gorgeously crafted and delivered with conviction and poise, with spell-like lyrics that illuminate and confound in equal measure.
Given all that, Messenger is Pug’s first foray into being more than just that lonely folk troubadour that people have been falling in love with over the past two years. And while the more electrically arranged numbers (the opening title cut, and the re-worked “Speak Plainly, Diana”) are quite good andpoint to a more spirited direction for Pug to go in, it remains the confessional acoustic numbers here, with all their heart and pain and longing, that shine the brightest. It’s difficult to pick out highlights to talk about here, as most of the songs stick to Pug’s unstructured finger picking and evocative harmonica solos, with the occasional pedal steel, that leaves each song feeling like a carefully wrapped present. Since I’m obliged to single out a few songs, though, I’m going to highlight a couple.
“Not So Sure” is, somewhat obviously, about all the things the speaker is not so sure about as he once was. As the song goes, “definitely was a word I used far too much” as he apologies for “undressing someone’s daughter/ and then complained about her looks” and confessing that “the church was my kitchen/the world was my church/but these days, I’m not so sure.” These insights are interspersed with such purely lyrical lines as “I drank my wine for breakfast/ every morning I was born / in the black electric winter, my back was always warm.” I’m not sure what that means (if it does mean anything), but when Pug sings it, it is absolutely beautiful.
“Bury Me (Far From My Uniform)” has been circulating around the internet for quite awhile since Pug performed it for Daytrotter about a year ago. The song works on the brilliant conceit of a soldier asking to be buried “far from my uniform/so God might remember my face.” The verses drive home the point that there are so many things about war that distract us from the very simple fact that they, are more than anything, mass factories of death. They turn so many people into just one thing, a soldier, and then send them off to die. Very, very powerful stuff.
Anyhow, the record is out, on Lightning Records, and its quite good. Plus this guy is gonna be around for a long, long time, so you might as well get on board now.