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The Lowdown:

Joe Pug

Based In:
Austin, TX



The Great Despiser

Release Date:
April 24, 2012

Lightning Rod Records

Previous Releases:
Nation of Heat (EP, 2008), The Messenger (2010)

Folk, folk rock, singer-songwriter

Joe Pug, The Great Despiser cover art

Rating: 7 out of 10



May 22, 2012


Joe Pug: The Great Despiser

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


Joe Pug has rightly earned critical acclaim for his lyrical abilities, but just because he used to be a carpenter doesn't mean he's the second coming. Photo by Todd Roeth.

I’m going to go out on a limb right off the bat and say that Joe Pug’s The Great Despiser is probably not as good as everyone is saying it is. Anyone who’s ever read one of my reviews knows I’m a lyrics guy and I love a well-penned turn of phrase or deep poetic meaning as much as Don Draper loves Canadian Club and kinky prostitutes. Pug’s work is certainly filled with lyrical power. In fact, it’s chock full of the kind of metaphorical poetry that reviewers jump all over each other to praise, mostly because they think that if they pretend to understand it they’ll appear smarter by association. But while poetry always comes before pop for me, great songs are not those that just grab the listener on a cerebral level, but which also demand to be listened to. As every reviewer has rightly pointed out, The Great Despiser is filled with powerful lyrics, but too often they are paired with music that just doesn’t capture you the way you want it to. Who cares how good the lyrics are if you’re only going to listen to the song once and never want to play it again? It’s not that it’s a bad album. In fact a number of the songs are quite powerful both lyrically and musically and as a whole it’s a much better effort than most musicians will ever achieve. It’s just that I wouldn’t go jizzing all over myself trying to find superlatives for it the way many others have.

The Great Despiser is a follow up to Pug’s just-as-critically-acclaimed 2010 full-length debut Messenger. Each features well-crafted lyrics and the power of Pug’s ethereally mature voice, which reminds me of some sort of a strange crossbred combination of legends John Hiatt, Joe Ely and James McMurtry. The real difference is that while Messenger stayed essentially true to an acoustic folk/singer-songwriter style, The Great Despiser attempts to branch out into more rock-based territory on a number of tracks. According to Pug, this was an attempt to create “arrangements that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the lyrics.” While I’m never one to discourage musical innovation, and while in some cases these songs are relatively compelling, the style just doesn’t suit Pug as well as it might those three gentlemen previously mentioned. More often than not, I would have preferred the extra layers to be striped away so that Pug’s best two features—his writing ability and his voice—could be more clearly discerned. A more complex arrangement is very rarely a better one where this kind of music is concerned.

Perhaps the best cut on the album, “A Gentle Few,” proves this point, as it is the simplest track present. It is a genial song whose temperate sound couches biting lyrics that cut to the core of the meaning (or lack thereof) to be found in this long slog called life. The delicate acoustic guitar and almost timid piano notes belie the sharp edges of the lyrics, the melancholic stanzas of which each reveal a bitter truth about the nature of our fellow man. Several posses a particular pithy power, such as:

The years that I been through, I met a gentle few
Who say that they love and they mean it.
Others that I met, they're decent folks I guess,
But all that they love is achievement.


Remember in the end many of your friends
Would rather be dead than uncertain.
They want a simple yes, or even better yet,
A promise the next life is perfect.

I feel like Mr. Pug and I have had this conversation a thousand times over many years, and he’s distilled it into a few potent lines. Philosophy aside, there is one thing this song makes amply clear: Joe Pug should never work at a suicide prevention hotline.

Lyrically, the next-strongest selection is a darkhorse, the penultimate track on the album, “The Servant’s Ace.” It is a slow waltz with lightly sawed fiddle and spritely piano overtop bouncingly strummed guitars. Despite its old-time feel and slightly archaic language, it’s a 99%er anthem through and through, with the servant in question finding small pieces of spiritual consolation and moments of rebellion within his workaday drudgery. Particularly poignant are the lines:

There are children of theirs
In the bedroom upstairs.
I taught them their letters and words.

They refuse to be heirs
And inherit their share
Of a fortune that they never earned.

With an up-tempo power style much more in the vein of than Pug’s usual faire, the title track, “The Great Despiser” is undoubtedly the most ear-catching piece on the album. It’s one example where the new style did work. If anything, this really does sound like a long-lost John Hiatt track, and that’s not a bad thing. Not only is the energy level higher than on most of the rest of the album, but the sound is fuller, too, with ringing cymbals tucked in between staccato piano and organ chords and blazing electric guitar licks. Despite the sunny sound, it’s a downer tale about a broken man returning home and pondering his life and all the things that seemed important to him when he was younger and just don’t any more. It’s a common enough plot, and probably provides reason enough never to return home once you’ve managed to break free, no matter how bad things get:

Hey little brother, did you hear I made it back to town?
I'm getting sober; there's some things I got to figure out.
I saw the station and the light we used to run around.
I could have sworn it there were things I used to care about.

I am the great despiser.
I hold myself beside her.
I often hope for fire.
I am the great despiser.

Featuring a light acoustic sound, “Hymn #76” opens the album with an intricately crafted, highly metaphorical and somewhat epic musing that touches on everything from the nature of human relations to the impermanence of life, but mostly highlights the necessity of risk and the idea that it is better to win or lose than not to strive:

To love me is to sit upon the mountain.
Every step is harder than the last.
But to find the step above it
Is to triumph, is to summit.
Taste the frigid water from the tap.
Oh, taste the frigid water from the tap.

To curse me for the life we left behind us
Is to misremember what was God’s.
For from the vacant cradle
To the empty kitchen table
Show me what was precious; it was lost.
Oh, I’m sorry that I said it, and I know it might be reckless.
Oh, show me what was precious; it was lost.

One of the most sonically interesting songs on the album, “Silver Harps and Violins” is yet another selection of “things were better then” ruminations, with an almost spiritual upside. The high, strummed strings and harmonica are joined by an electronic swirl one would better expect from an indie rock song, but it’s not entirely out of place in the context of the album. The basic thesis of the song is reminiscent of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever,” in which the artist, despite all of his travails and disappointments, is left in the end with his creations to bolster him and grant him some measure of immortality:

Sometimes a vision
Lights up your mind.
It’s all you were given,
Like fragile fruit on a fragile vine.

There’s a world out there,
I know there is,
Where they play my songs
On their silver harps and their violins.

If you remember one thing,
Remember this:
When the lights came up
There was nothing left I could give.

With a wavy, minor key harshness and a bluesy edge, “Neither Do I Need a Witness” certainly stands out from the rest of the songs on the album, although in this case it’s not necessarily a good thing. This attempt by Pug to expand the range of his music turned out too busy. A fuzzy electric guitar and ringing steel fill in the spaces between lighter vocal breaks backed by acoustic guitar, until the whole song builds into a tempest-like clamorous peak. The song does contain a number of well-penned lines that save it from irrelevance, including one that strikes a particular chord with this writer:

Joe Pug apparently likes to be photographed sitting in old chairs staring off into space. Somewhere a music critic is finding deep meaning in this fact. Photo by Todd Roeth.

Leaders need titles.
Pastors need men.
Authors need stories
More than stories need them.

After an album filled with a number of disconsolate broken life tales, Pug decided to close the work from a more optimistic perspective with “Deep Dark Wells.” A simple song sung overtop a strummed acoustic guitar, it’s basically an imperative to keep going, no matter how bleak things seem. It’s like he’s telling his own downtrodden characters from the pervious songs that everything’ll be ok:

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.

And 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.

The remaining tracks are all at best innocuous. “Stronger Than the World” is another up-tempo, electrified romp that seems as if it could easily have been a John Hiatt or Joe Ely outtake, while the melody for “One of Many” seems to have been cribbed directly from Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl,” just simplified and mellowed out. This fact bothers me so much that I can’t even pay attention to the lyrics.

Overall this album is decent enough, though certainly not great. The lyrics are often extremely strong, but at times it feels like Pug is trying too hard to be “that guy who gets compared to Dylan.” A number of the tracks—notably “A Gentle Few,” “The Great Despiser,” and “The Servant’s Ace”—will find their way into my folk and folk rock playlists, but many of the others are too easily forgotten. Still, the tracks that hit are strong enough to make it an album worth exploring.


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