Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
There is a mountain of contemplation that goes on in Joe Pug's head from one minute to the next and it's loaded with all of the spills and follies, the depressing conclusions and the lukewarm happiness that seems to set in when his woodsy folk songs ring out at their conclusions. It's as if every moment that preoccupies the young songwriter from Chicago could be summed up by the disappointment that courses through his songs - even when something pleasant seems to be slightly present. It's like reaching for a cup of coffee, intent of enjoying a small and toasty sip, believing that you're going to have to take it slow or risk burning your tongue out of your mouth, only to find that the liquid in the cup has gone disgustingly cold in the span between sips. We're on the other side of that taste of room temperature or colder coffee, when all that was desired was a mouth and chest full of warm brew. When Pug speaks, when he sings, you can smell a lifetime's worth of cigarette smoke in his words - the slow smoke of weighty nights and long, long stares into the walls, sometimes the ceiling as it spins in an alcoholic twister. "Not So Sure," from Pug's latest record, "Messenger," is the embodiment of the way this tortured guy gets tortured. He feels the pain of a ticking clock or a yellowing calendar. He feels the pain in being left. He feels the pain in the uncertainty of where he will be soon, who he will be soon and more scarily, where and who the people in his life are going to be at that time. No matter how smart or confident a person becomes or thinks they've become, that sober thought of not being able to count on anything holding any form of certainly could paralyze you down to the skin, into the skin and further on inside. You could just turn cold and unresponsive, for action might not make any difference. It's what make Pug's songs of protest - not really Protest Songs - so unique and so quivering, so touching and so right on. They are not brash enough to think that anything can be changed and they're not falsely courageous enough to try and change anything. They are mourning the ways things have become, how everything's gotten so worn out and hearts so charred and weak. Nothing good has lasted and it's what's been leading Pug to bum more cigarettes, to help him get through the ugly truths that have been thwacking and beating rhythmically like the pull chain on a flag pole on a gusty afternoon. Ping, ping, ping, with nothing but more gusts on deck. It could tear you to shreds. Pug sings on "Not So Sure," "Breathing was so easy then/I wish that it still were," and he recounts his overuse of the word "definitely" in the past and finds that he's having problems remembering the touch of an old lover and the décor of her old bedroom. It's a lengthy list of memories fading and also of a complete disintegration of sureness in anything that was once held close to holy and sacred. How frightening that must be, to feel as if everything's slipped a groove and has started to recede, to dwindle into the countryside quickly and with an unwanted exit. Pug gets to the center of these concerns, looking at what it means to be the man that he's hoping to be and the man that he may never become in these songs of urgency and sweetness. He sings, "Yeah, I've come to meet the sheriff and his posse to offer him the broad side of my jaw," and warns us of the "congress of jackals," as well as of "the legendary takers," and it's a warning of how he's sitting, believing that this will act out with or without him and he's willing to participate, to give someone a free shot, hoping that there will be a second or third shot that will be his. He's half-way betting on it as the cigarette smoke is exhaled up to the night sky like a helicopter.