review: Marla Cantrell
You are going to love this album. Folk singer Joe Pug, thirty-one, has never been better. He’s often compared to greats like John Prine, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, and you’ll easily see why. It’s not just his voice that draws you in. His songwriting is stellar, turning phrases like, “They don’t know beauty, just the costume. Don’t know music, just the volume. Stay and dance with just who brought you.”
All ten songs on Windfall are written by Pug, and all are beautiful. The album starts with “Bright Beginnings.” Here’s the first line: “I don’t know but I could swear, we left our better selves somewhere.” The acoustic guitar, which Pug plays, shines through. The song takes a look at our perfect beginnings, the way the sun rises and sets on the person we love. But few of us can keep those moments. If we’re lucky, we get something better, something deeper, and that’s what this song is about.
“Great Hosannas” sounds like something you’d hear in church. There’s an ache to it, and the harmonica seems to pick up on that, and you can imagine a choir joining in. It takes a while to really get the song. The lyrics are a series of images strung together that tell the stories of our lives, from walk-in closets to open faucets to costume jewelry. He seems to lament life, to want it to be better than it seems to be.
Quite possibly the best track is “Veteran Fighter.” “You see the moon in the mirror tonight as you put it onto 35 South,” Pug sings, and then he takes us on a ride with someone who’s trying to sort life out on this long drive. Pug offers this advice: “Don’t back down. It will get brighter. Stand your ground like a veteran fighter. Grip that wheel just a little bit tighter, now.”
A close second is “O My Chesapeake.” It sounds like a ballad that could have been written a century ago, and tells the story of a wandering man who’s looking back at the life he’s lived. On “Windfallen,” Pug finally uses the word “windfall.” He dismisses the power of blind luck and says we should sign up for the long haul, put in the work, and reap the benefits of never giving in.
It occurred to me that what I love so much about this album is that these songs sound a lot like short stories. Particularly, they sound like Southern short stories. It could be that Pug’s interest in classic literature is showing through. He’s said to admire Walt Whitman, Raymond Carver, and John Steinbeck. He has so many lines that are absolutely perfect, but my favorite is, “I was born, then I loved you, I guess that was enough.” He sings it like a man who believes the words, who has found out the greatest joy on earth. I like to think he has.