On the title track of his most recent album, singer/songwriter Joe Pug proclaims himself "the great despiser," a poetic turn of phrase that aptly captures the subtle ambiguities of his well-crafted tunes. There's obviously a cutting and caustic sense of self-analysis and introspection to it, but also a bold and assertive claim to a kind of power and greatness that feels a bit oxymoronic.
In some sense, this is inevitable for a songwriter who writes about character flaws and self-doubt and then turns around and performs them on stages all across the country, including a Feb. 9 performance at the Visulite Theatre. It's also particularly fitting for Pug, a fledgling drama major and playwright who abandoned his academic pursuits the day before his senior year at UNC Chapel Hill and spent a few years toiling away at open mics and construction jobs while meticulously perfecting his songwriting style.
Once his debut EP, 2008's Nation of Heat, dropped, Pug saw his hard work pay off and his star quickly rise, with opening gigs on tours with Steve Earle and Josh Ritter and a stream of blazing hot press anointing him the Bob Dylan of his generation. With poetic, occasionally political lyrics, an unconventional voice, and his acoustic guitar-and-harmonica rack set-up, Dylan comparisons were inevitable, but the real draws weren't the surface similarities so much as the emergence of a unique voice and creative force that seemed starkly different from most of his contemporaries.
"It's always blown my mind how many [musical] comparisons are so surface-based," Pug says from his new home in Austin, Texas, where he is finishing writing a batch of songs due to appear sometime in 2014. "I mean, I think the Dylan comparison is fair, but I just don't think it's a very interesting one. When you look at the subject matter of what's being written, we're very different."
Pug tends to eschew straightforward narratives or easy answers in his songs, occasionally leaving his audience wonderstruck but uncertain of his meaning. "I get really bored with really hard story songs or narrative songs that [are predictable]," he admits. "There's no tension in the song, and you feel like you've heard it a million times. I'm not interested in retreading that ground."
Instead, Pug approaches writing with a serious and single-minded sense of purpose. "I'm just trying to mine, to go deep with myself," he explains. "No gimmicks, no novelties. Just trying to go deep into myself and pull out some insights. And I try to present them in as poetic a way as possible."
Such simplicity of design, particularly alongside Pug's admitted "meat-and-potatoes" folk-rock arrangements, sounds fairly anachronistic and unassuming for a modern world endlessly overrun with twists and subversions of popular music, but that's OK with him.
"I think [this approach] is the most exciting thing that can be done, artistically," Pug says. "You could argue that the vast majority of the population doesn't want to hear that, but I think we've built an audience of people that agree with that."