Ignoring a doctor’s order is never easy (or advisable) – but PUP have reaped some benefit. After singer Stefan Babcock ripped up his vocal chords through years of playing in punk bands, he was urged to hold off his life calling. Instead, it spurred him on to write their aptly-titled second album that followed in 2016, The Dream Is Over, and set out on a two-year touring cycle.
Risking his physical health was required to reach the heights they have, but recording PUP’s third record would this time ask for an act of mental defiance. Morbid Stuff was birthed from Stefan’s battle with depression, his search for optimism and plea for purpose. While these answers may not be found, PUP’s trademark sardonic punk abrasion allows him to laugh in its face throughout the ongoing fight with his demons – all while creating the band’s hardest-hitting, most cohesive work to date.
Where its predecessor opened with ‘If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You’ – a slower, gruelling view of life on the road and the toll it takes on mental wellbeing – Morbid Stuff places Stefan “back in the city without a care” (‘Morbid Stuff’).
This opening title-track leans heavily on jubilant guitar, cloaking Stefan’s frustrated lyrics. Spitting out the first lyrics, “I was bored as fuck, sitting around and thinking all this morbid stuff, like if anyone I’d slept with is dead, and I got stuck, on death and dying and obsessive thoughts that won’t let up”, sets out his newfound problems that arise once the tour is over.
Optimistic pacing from his bandmates juxtaposes his fearful thoughts to create a conflict with how he believes he should be feeling, as he utters “I don’t know what you want me to say”. To close the track, the band’s mood matches his lyrics, with Steve Sladkowski switching to a slow, acoustic outro.
Its sudden change in mood is a tool that PUP have always had in their locker, proving particularly effective on this record of deep exploration into Stefan’s emotions. Whether it’s ‘Scorpion Hill’’s Johnny Marr-esque guitar work feeding into gang-vocal hooks before fading out into slow slide guitar and harmonicas; or the brashness becoming a slow, high-register affair that generates vulnerability in ‘Closure’; PUP have taken the title as modern-day masters of the turn of pace on Morbid Stuff.
Through the creation of these dichotomies within each track, it successfully delivers the inner wirings of Babcock’s mind to compliment his lyrics. For each triumphant Zack Mykula drum pattern that builds to a crescendo of Babcock professing love in the only twisted turns of phrase he knows how on ‘Kids’, PUP clap back with the self-aware, but equally self-deprecating and darker anthem ‘Free At Last’.
Despite the dimming of the subject matter, Morbid Stuff is a record overflowing with bleak lyrics clothed in melody that you cannot help but want to scream back until you explode alongside them. PUP will yank you in every direction and corner, yet being hit from each angle with the catchiest choruses you’ll hear all year remains constant in abundance.
‘See You At Your Funeral’ features the biggest singalong moment, coupled with PUP’s curled-lip outlook on the world coming into play more than ever, and the heightened self-awareness seeping back through from Stefan professing, “you know me I’ve always been a little masochistic”. Stefan is the all-powerful, all-knowing figure of his own mind in this instance, choosing to grab what causes him to suffer and turn it to humour.
By reaching into himself, Morbid Stuff acts as a catharsis for Stefan, as well as those in his position. But, by doing so, a tipping point of white-hot rage on ‘Full Blown Meltdown’ brings a sizeable shoulder chip to the foreground. It is a heavy-launched critique on the music industry’s treatment of artists who are suffering. Nestor Chumak’s bass comes steaming in to launch the assault, before Stefan, in full throttle, screams, “It’s good for business, and baby business is booming, I’ll be sure to write it down when I hit rock bottom, for all the people who love to festishise problems.”
In the wake of the growing number of musicians speaking out about similar issues, and others – most recently Keith Flint, of The Prodigy – losing the fight, it’s a poignant, brave message from the band, who fight demons of their own.
‘City’, the album’s final track, chooses the darkest path of sonics on the record, with a foreboding rhythm section that creeps around gently strummed chords. Stefan continually sings, “I’m weighed down in this city, it’s hard to live here, and I’ve been feeling restlessness, this battle raging in me, don’t wanna love you anymore, but I can’t help it.” Returning to the lyrical scape of the opening track points to a standstill in the search for answers for Stefan, and the frustrations that he sings of on Morbid Stuff seemingly remain.
While these answers are left hanging, it is nonetheless an important journey for all parties, as the level of self-awareness from Stefan communicated through the whole band has improved PUP as a four-sided unit. Pieced together in another outstanding production job from Dave Schiffman, it’s the punk album of 2019 so far, and the strongest work of their career – and ticks off another act of defiance since that trip to doctor.
Morbid Stuff is released on 5 April 2019 via Rise Records/Little Dipper.