Joe Pug is infuriatingly good.
Let me clarify. If you’re a fellow songwriter, Joe Pug is infuriatingly good. Gifted with razor-sharp wit, vivid, eloquent lyricism and a voice that echoes the younger incarnations of Prine and Dylan, Joe Pug makes other songwriters – most of whom will spend their entire lives trying to write songs half as good as Pug’s – furious. If you’re somebody who simply listens to and enjoys music, there’s nothing infuriating about Pug; he’s just a Godsend.
After the staggering brilliance of Pug’s debut EP, Nation of Heat, his first full-length LP, Messenger, could have been a colossal letdown, simply because Pug set expectations so high. It is anything but. Messenger is a collection of ten literate, poetic gems, brimming over with wit, wisdom and imagery. At 25 years old, Pug has filled his first two releases with a lifetime’s worth of brilliance, setting the bar incredibly high for himself, and damn near unreachably high for any other songwriter of his generation. He is, as they say, the Real Deal.
Take for instance the coming-of-age anthem “Not So Sure.” Pug casually tosses off the admission that he “undressed somebody’s daughter, then complained about her looks,” which seems simple enough until you stop to consider that he has, in less than ten words, captured everything worth saying about the mercurial and dismissive nature of young romance. That’s something of a feat for anyone else. For Pug, it is one of dozens of lines that distill the countless nuances of life down to simple, undeniable truths. To say this is not an easy task for a writer is like saying a 102 MPH fastball is moving “pretty fast.”
If there is one knock on Messenger, and even this is a bit of a reach, it is that the arrangements are very much “stock” roots music. The pedal steel comes in exactly when you think it will, and the accompanying electric guitar plays the lick you expect it to. For anyone else, it would just be a matter of a clean arrangement but for a songwriter of Pug’s considerable gifts, it seems something of a disappointment.
Nitpicking notwithstanding, Pug’s album will find its way to numerous Best of 2010 lists as well as Essential Listening lists, and rightfully so. Soon, he’ll have only himself to compete with.