Review: Pkew Pkew Pkew exemplify a new wave of punk existentialism

On their new third album Optimal Lifestyles, the Toronto band show off the world-weary wisdom that comes from too much drinking on your couch


Rating: NNN


There’s a new brand of punk nihilism. 

Bands like the Sex Pistols once expressed the frustration of a generation by snarling “no future,” but the new philosophy is more “Who cares if there’s a future or not? Let’s drink a bunch of beer and pass out on the couch.”

That defeated existentialism is soaked into Pkew Pkew Pkew’s third album, which is full of anthemic fist-pumpers about things you probably shouldn’t be pumping your fist about: drinking, playing video games, skateboarding until you’re injured and maybe if you feel ambitious, going out for breakfast the next day. But only maybe. Depends how hungover you are. 

It’s hard to tell how much irony you’re supposed to read into the Toronto band’s songs. Where indie rock slackers of the 90s expressed similar sentiments with obscure lyrics and musical shrugs, Pkew Pkew Pkew sound a lot more earnest. There are chord progressions straight from old early Clash and Pogues records, the occasional 50s-style guitar solo and big choruses to be sloppily screamed back at shows. 

For this album, lead singer Mike Warne sought out advice and mentorship from the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, a songwriter who’s perfected the art of finding poetry in the experience of touring your 15th dive bar in 14 days, and an influence on many of these new existential punks. You can hear his approach especially in the narrative-based songs, which play like short stories of millennial burnout as translated through touring vans, insomnia, one-way TTC trips and pointless jobs you hate. 

There’s a specificity to a song like Adult Party that rings true if you’ve ever been to a party that runs from 8 to 12:30, with “three dips in the spread” and everyone catches up long enough to grab your coat off the coat pile and get to bed early. (That song also has a section about how “rich kids” aren’t welcome at the band’s shows, which can’t help but make us consider the unexamined class politics in the white middle-class ennui expressed all over the album.)

There’s a world-weary wisdom that was only hinted at in party-heavy previous albums, and the band is skilled at translating it into catchy lyrical nuggets you can raise a tall can to. “We’re the same old kids that we were before except older,” they sing on opener Still Hangin’ Out After All These Years. “Do you think it’s too late for me to age gracefully?” they ponder on Everything’s The Same. “The only one torturing me is myself,” they admit on Passed Out. But it’s self-diagnosis without much of a treatment plan. “I want you to know I know that I want to change” is as far as it gets on I Don’t Matter At All

Probably best not to think too hard about it. There’s still a case of beer to kill. 

Top track: Still Hangin’ Out After All These Years

Pkew Pkew Pkew play a release show at the Horseshoe on Thursday (February 28). See listing.

@nowtoronto | @trapunski

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