There are musicians who suffer for their art, and then there’s Stefan Babcock. The guitarist and lead screamer for Toronto pop-punk ragers PUP has often used his music as a bullhorn to address the physical and mental toll of being in a touring rock band. The band’s 2016 album The Dream Is Over was inspired by Babcock seeking treatment for his ravaged vocal cords and being told by a doctor he’d never be able to sing again. Now, with that scare behind him, he’s using the aptly titled Morbid Stuff to address a more insidious ailment: depression. “The Dream Is Over was riddled with anxiety and uncertainties, but I think I was expressing myself in a more immature way,” Babcock tells Apple Music. “I feel I’ve found the language to better express those things.”
Certainly, Morbid Stuff pulls no punches: This is an album whose idea of an opening line is “I was bored as fuck/Sitting around and thinking all this morbid stuff/Like if anyone I slept with is dead.” But of course, this being PUP—a band that built their fervent fan base through their wonderfully absurd high-concept videos—they can’t help but make a little light of the darkest subject matter.
“I’m pretty aware of the fact I’m making money off my own misery—what Phoebe Bridgers called ‘the commodification of depression,’” Babcock says. “It’s a weird thing to talk about mood disorders for a living. But my intention with this record was to explore the darker things with a bit of humor, and try to make people feel less alone while they listen to it.” To that end, Babcock often directs his most scathing one-liners at himself. On the instant shout-along anthem “Free at Last,” he issues a self-diagnosis that hits like a glass of cold water in the face: “Just because you’re sad again/It doesn’t make you special at all.”
“The conversation around mental health that’s happening now is such a positive thing,” Babcock says, “but one of the small drawbacks is that people are now so sympathetic to it that some people who suffer from mood disorders—and I speak from experience here—tend to use it as a crutch. I can sometimes say something to my bandmates or my girlfriend that’s pretty shitty, and they’ll be like, ‘It’s okay, Stefan’s in a different headspace right now’—and that’s not okay. It’s important to remind myself and other people that being depressed and being an asshole are not mutually exclusive.”
Complementing Babcock’s fearless lyricism is the band’s growing confidence to step outside of the circle pit: “Scorpion Hill” begins as a lonesome barstool serenade before kicking into a dusty cowpunk gallop, while the power-pop rave-up “Closure” simmers into a sweet psychedelic breakdown that nods to one of Babcock’s all-time favorite bands, Built to Spill. And the closing “City” is PUP’s most vulnerable statement to date, a pulverizing power ballad where Babcock takes stock of his conflicted relationship with Toronto, his lifelong home.
“The beginning of ‘Scorpion Hill’ and ‘City’ are by far the most mellow, softest moments we’ve ever created as a band,” Babcock says. “And I think on the last two records, we never would’ve gone there—not because we didn’t want to, but just because we didn’t think people would accept PUP if PUP wasn’t always cranked up to 10. And this time, we felt a bit more confident to dial it back in certain parts when it felt right. I feel like we’ve grown a lot as a band and shed some of our inhibitions.”
Free at Last
See You at Your Funeral
Bloody Mary, Kate and Ashley
Full Blown Meltdown
11 Songs, 37 Minutes
April 5, 2019
℗ 2019 PUP under exclusive license to Rise Records / BMG Rights Management (US) LLC