The last track on Mulligrub’s debut album is the bummed-out “Sprite Zero Slushie,” which ends on the cogent line, “It’s a movie I have seen a million times too many,” repeated by vocalist and guitarist Kelly Campbell as she twists the words around in her mouth and expels them with force, ushering the record to a clamoring finish. It’s a fitting way to go out for a record that’s largely about seeing yourself and others fall into familiar and comfortable but unhealthy patterns and feeling too complacent to do anything about it. The record’s title, Soft Grudge, is maybe a sly reference to the ’90s revivalism fashion fad from earlier in the decade that’s still ongoing, but it’s mostly it’s a nod to the malleability of our emotional state, the pushback of knowing when to stand your ground and when to forgive.
Campbell originally started Mulligrub as a solo project, the earliest fruits of which are collected on 2013’s Pre Grub EP, sketches of what these songs would eventually blossom into once the full band started working together. These demos are noticeably different than the bittersweet punk that fills Soft Grudge — bouncy riffs and countryfied elasticity would give way to the tired pathos of their final versions. “Mountains & Houses” undergoes the most dramatic transformation: Its chorus of “There’s pills that you can take to stop/ A thousand misfired neurons” now seems less like an optimal solution and more like just another method of problem avoidance. Later, again on “Sprite Zero,” “aspartame and anxiety medication/ shaky summer hungover repetitive motion” has just become another deadening part of the day-to-day.
The relationships documented throughout Soft Grudge contain a similar matter-of-factness, love by way of convenience and necessity rather than any palpable passion. Two fucked-up people just happening to smash into each other’s lives with no way to fix each other’s flaws, but maybe finding something worthwhile in all the mess anyway to tide them over until they’re ready to take the next step. “We were two very unhealthy people,” Campbell observes on “Anyways However.” “Seems like all we did back then was cry on each other’s shoulders/ When the tears dried up, it would get a little awkward/ It’s a miracle somewhere in there we found we held some common ground.” A few songs earlier, she acknowledges the potential mismatch of a pairing, but doesn’t want anything to change, at least for the moment: “I don’t know if you will be around to write sad poems for me/ I don’t know if I will be around to sing you to sleep/ I don’t know if codependency is really all that healthy/ The only thing that I know right now is I miss you already.”
The most captivating parts of Soft Grudge are when it feels as though Campbell’s voice is working in opposition of the music itself, fighting against the tide to get her words out. The back half of “Chicken” sounds like she’s climbing up a mountain with every breath: “Tell all your friends that you’re a better person,” she builds. “Cry into their shoulders like it makes a like it makes a like it makes a difference/ Ask yourself who is it are you really trying to convince.” Her cadence in that section is electrifying. Something similar happens on “Europe,” a knotted and complicated meditation on a friend who committed an unforgivable wrong: “You’re not gonna change/ And there ain’t no one that can make ya/ So I’ll walk home alone, and you will keep being a rapist…”
Those fiery swells are tempered by songs like “NFLD,” which contains the most uplifting point on the record. It’s a track that builds up to a brief moment of serenity that results in the narrator’s destruction. After traveling on a ferry to the idyllic nature with the one that she loves, they end up on the rocks overlooking an ocean, watching whales off in the distance: “I’ve never been and may never again be so close to something so complete and beautiful,” Campbell reminisces. “And if the undertow should take me, I won’t panic and I won’t scream/ Just watch the rocks destroy my body and watch the parts become part of something greater than I could ever conceive.” Those fleeting glimpses of peace are all we’ve got.
Mulligrub’s songs tends to take place in the breaths between words of a conversation, those millions of thoughts that rush around heads but can’t possibly be enunciated or elucidated. The Winnipeg trio take those moments and slow them down until there’s something to hold onto, something to make sense of in all the confusion. These are songs about giving up and giving in, not sacrificing yourself but maybe exhibiting an unwillingness to put up much of a fight. Reflecting on a past love, “Anyways And However” ends on its title phrase: “I know you tried real hard, but you broke my heart/ But it doesn’t matter ’cause I’ll love you, anyways and however.”
Soft Grudge is out tomorrow (4/23). You can pre-order it here. They’ll be playing a release show on Saturday with Animal Teeth and Cannon Bro’s at the Goodwill Social Club in Winnipeg, and will be on a Canadian tour after that.