Man, I’m not sure a band has ever spoken to me quite like Pkew Pkew Pkew has. This is a band that meditates on intense life issues like: wanting to order a pizza, but not wanting to be the one that calls; skateboarding, and subsequently getting hurt in your mid-20s; and of course, the age-old battle of people calling you ‘chief.’ Pkew Pkew Pkew is deeply indebted to minutiae, raucous singalong odes to sweating the small stuff. I’ve liked a lot of albums in the last couple years, but these Toronto pop punks are the only ones to make a perfect one. With Optimal Lifestyles, we have their sophomore release—one, ironically, with a lot of weight riding on it, despite the low-key slacker vibe of their music. The drunken louts who practice in apartments, gang vocal about getting drunk (before they go out drinking, of course) are now in the unenviable position of following up perfection.
For those that don’t know Pkew, think of them like PUP’s underachieving cousin. Both bands have a melodic, audience-informed approach to the genre—complete with gang vocal chants you can’t help but get amped for in a live setting. But where PUP is ambitious and technically proficient, Pkew Pkew Pkew play their power chords with an almost garage rock intensity. They come off as just a bunch of dudes who have no idea how their band made it to where they are. They play funny songs with lots of fun parts to shout along to, and they’re really good at it. On Optimal Lifestyles though, the trend is upended, with a few returns to forms. The band has expanded their instrumentation for one, getting weird with their production when the opportunity occurs (check out the sax on “Point Break”), but they also sound less emphatic, less ballsy this time around too—embracing more mid-tempo, alt-rock sounding melodic punk a la Nothington.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but: Optimal Lifestyles is not as good as the self-titled. For all of the original’s charms, the band seems to be trying to shift their core identity, and unfortunately: the new Pkew is not as good as the old Pkew. At times, Optimal Lifestyles is just too damn serious. It’s also too damn long. At fifteen tracks, the fast, loud, brash, and silly vibe of a bunch of twenty-something slackers is lost in a sea of growing and learning that feels continuously off target.
Still though, as much as this is not as good as their first album, it’s also still pretty good. The original band is still in here, somewhere, even if it takes a little cutting through the fat. “I Wanna See a Wolf” is possibly the best song on the album, a perfectly executed banger about something so mundanely stupid I can barely believe it was written in the first place. This is the essence of Pkew Pkew Pkew. Here, we have such delicate lyrics as, “I don’t wanna settle for a coyote, I know they’re easier to see, well fuck that.” There’s also “Adult Party,” which I think straddles the line between new and old the best, where painting a picture of a shitty party full of shitty people builds to an epic gang vocal singalong of, “Rich kids, go fuck yourself, if there’s some in the audience, go somewhere else.” That’s the kind of bravado I love and expect from Pkew.
Album ender, “Thirsty and Humble,” bridges this gap pretty well too. It’s a massive singalong that talks about drinking beers in alleys, the new Red Dead, and caps off with a neat thirst metaphor. The problem with Optimal Lifestyles is that there’s not enough of these moments to make the new Pkew palatable. It almost feels like a third album in that respect, as if we’re missing a link between two vastly different bands. Is the more serious approach bad? Is Pkew Pkew Pkew bad at writing serious songs? No, not really. The songs are fine, but they don’t conjure the excitement and newness (nor the wonderful brevity) of the first album. Slowing down and singing about depression is hardly a novel progression in punk rock in 2019. But maybe, it’s necessary. Maybe the clowns are tired of honking their noses and making us laugh at how dumb they can be. Optimal Lifestyles isn’t perfect, but it is good—and for all of its changes, it doesn’t feel calculated in the least—one sure reminder that buried in this new sound, Pkew Pkew Pkew still lives.