False Prophet: Pug is not a messenger yet.

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Since the 2007 release of his firebrand debut EP, Nation of Heat, 25-year-old Joe Pug has crisscrossed the country, touching the wounds of quarter-life-crisis victims and leaving nostalgic boomers clutching at his cloth. But the titular messenger of Pug’s new album is a woman, and Pug narrates as she breaks your heart on the opening track, an uptempo country tune. Songs about women aren’t unusual, of course, but they do mark a departure from Nation of Heat, which was essentially a self-portrait rendered in thick, indulgent strokes. That record didn’t need women to evoke passion. It throbbed with a different romantic impulse: the restless desire to impose oneself grandly on the world. Messenger is more introverted. Pug uses his indoor voice. He doesn’t flog the strings of his guitar as fiercely or suck on his harmonica as greedily. His lyrics are less declarative, and sometimes quake with doubt: “Not So Sure” is a penitent ode to epistemology. “Unsophisticated Heart” is an admission of immaturity that literally ends with a whimper. “Disguised as Someone Else” is a fantasy in which the singer disavows his identity to hide from his regret. On the last record, Pug shouted, “I have done wrong, I will do wrong, there’s nothing wrong with doing wrong!” Here, he seems to tack on a meek amendment: “These days, I’m not so sure.” Pug’s lyrics keep finger-picked tunes about love and doubt relatively fresh. He uses a band on the opening and closing songs—the title track and an electric reworking of Nation of Heat’s “Speak Plainly Diana.” Mostly, though, it’s just Joe and his six-string, which is for the best. Pug is a fine musician, but his strongest asset is his writing, and his words cast the starkest shadows against a spare backdrop. But what Messenger lacks is the combination of unchained energy and old-soul canniness that made Nation of Heat such a stirring debut. Messenger is raging youth domesticated. It doesn’t want to remake the world; it settles for making its own garden—a modest pursuit, and perfectly honorable. But to those who heard in Pug’s early sermons the voice of a prophet, it might be too little too soon.