As Joe Pug’s new record, The Flood in Color, opens, the listener is quickly reminded of the minimalist beauty that has painted the singer-songwriter’s career for more than a decade. As he repeats the heartbreaking truth, “No drink is strong enough,” near the beginning of “Exit,” Pug lays out a heartache in things more deceiving than alcohol: No night is dark enough, no god is cruel enough, and no fall is high enough for the singer. When the reality of whatever is causing this torment culminates, the song ends, and the listener is left with a sense of unanswered hope. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just how Pug tells his stories in the varied worlds of each song.
Wherever Pug takes the listener — whether it’s into the storm on “The Flood in Color” or into a coming-of-age story in the fragile “Moonlight of Your Room” — it is clear that his recent move back to his childhood home in Prince George’s County, Maryland, has been a transformative experience.
“The past couple of albums haven’t always been the most enjoyable to record,” Pug admitted when The Flood in Color was first announced. With the help of producer Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids and engineer Matt Ross-Spang, the joy of recording was resurrected. Staying true to simple arrangements and gorgeous stories told in the matter of a couple of minutes, Pug brought his songs to life by recording live and in the same room with his fellow musicians.
While it’s never certain whether Pug is telling his stories as narrator or someone more deeply involved, “Empty Hands and Broad Shoulders” closes the record with what could be an autobiographical treatise on his career. Hearing “All those years of blood, sweat, and tears you cried / You’ve got less to show than you have to hide,” the listener can’t help but wonder if he’s pontificating about his own life or perhaps the experiences had while recording his last couple of LPs. Adding in the second verse, “You could have had a wife, instead you made a name / The monuments you built look smaller by the day,” Pug seems ready to embrace joys other than the music career he’s focused on since the release of his debut EP, Nation of Heat.
By embracing those joys — cooking, reading, hosting his podcast The Working Songwriter, and raising a kid — along with finding a new but familiar home in Maryland, Pug has crafted one of the most authentic records of his career. The Flood in Color is a stripped-down snapshot of what can happen when an artist allows his or her life to enter the studio; a life that is not defined by the pressures of the industry, but instead is honest about the struggles, and joys, that are always present in our journey.