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Joe Pug has always sounded wise beyond his years, ever since his first EP, 2008′s “Nation of Heat.” Five years later, his world-weariness is even more apparent on “The Great Despiser,” to be released April 24. There’s a tone to his voice and his lyrics that echoes folk legends from Bob Dylan to Steve Earle, a grittiness that no amount of practice can teach, and it’s what elevates “The Great Despiser” far above the ranks of most of his contemporaries.
“The Great Despiser” opens with its first single, “Hymn #76,” a sort of continuation of two tracks from previous releases entitled “Hymn #35” and “Hymn #101.” The lyrics are astounding in the usual Joe Pug way; they seem simple at first, but unfold new levels of meaning at each listen, not to mention a structure that would make any poet proud. Its first two lines are “To meet me is to dare into the darkness / If you are devoted to a dream,” and each following verse begins with a variation on that form, from “To love me is to sit upon the mountain / Every step is harder than the last,” to the closing verse, “To curse me for the life we left behind us / Is to misremember what was God’s.” The lyrics do begin to take on the quality of a hymn, and they bear the mark of a master storyteller at work.
It should be noted that Pug was, in fact, a playwriting major. Before his senior year of college, he realized that school was not making him happy. He packed up everything he owned and ended up in Chicago, where he began working as a carpenter during the day and playing guitar at night. He began selling out local shows and giving away free CDs, accompanied by personal thank-you notes, to anyone who asked for one. As the word began to spread, he ended up opening tours for Steve Earle, M. Ward, and Josh Ritter and playing solo at Lollapalooza and the Newport Folk Festival.
The thing is, anyone can pick up a guitar and call themselves a songwriter. It takes something special, some “it” factor, to stand out, and Pug has that in spades. While his melodies are nothing innovative or extraordinary, there’s something magical here. It’s not just the elegant, subtle lyrics, or the smoky, country-tinged vocals. Some songs just soar, such as the title track, where he belts again and again, “I don’t wanna care about it any more.” A scattered few songs, like the upbeat love song “Stronger Than The World,” venture into too-often-trod territory, but even with lyrics that are less inspired than we come to expect of Pug, his restraint saves them from cheesiness. In short, even at his worst, Pug is better than most.
“The Great Despiser” showcases the passion, maturity, and refined songwriting that allowed Pug to stand out and singlehandedly build himself a large and loyal following in the folk scene. It represents a leap forward in his as-yet small body of work, proof that his first LP wasn’t just a freshman fluke, and evidence that he’ll soon be joining the big leagues of contemporary songwriters. This guy is the real deal.