“I wish this summer was my last summer,” warbles PS I Love You frontman Paul Saulnier on the glorious fuzzbath that is “Future Dontcare,” his cracking, Tom Verlaine-esque chirp engulfed in radiant, distorted waves of electric guitar, firing sparks off Benjamin Nelson’s ricocheting snare rolls. “I wish this weekend was my last weekend.”
Death Dreams, the Canadian indie-rock duo’s second album, is—fittingly—consumed by darkness. Their noisy, gleeful, lo-fi debut, 2010’s Meet Me at the Muster Station, was a sleeper smash in their home country, shortlisted for a Polaris Prize and cemented by rave reviews from the Pitchfork crowd. But on their first major tour, Saulnier found himself haunted by his own mortality, plagued by, yes, literal “death dreams.” There’s a midnight-black cloud hanging over PS I Love You’s thrilling sophomore LP, and it extends beyond the often debilitating lyrics. First and foremost, the guitars are nastier, gnarlier, heavier—drilling into your temple with mesmerizing drone one second, consoling with wondrous waves of wah-wah the next. And where Meet Me at the Muster Station offered the occasional flirtation with pop, Death Dreams is miles from melodic, Saulnier’s choked, octave-cracking yelp threatening to implode amidst the pulverizing thunder.
At its breathtaking peaks, Death Dreams is the Indie-Rock Record of the Year, doing for 2012 what Cymbals Eat Guitars did for 2011 with their mind-blowing (and equally dark) Lenses Alien. “Sentimental Dishes” is power-pop drowning in paint-peeling guitar static—the album’s lone venture into catchiness, punctuated by a blistering, finger-tapped guitar solo that threatens to explode your speakers. On “Don’t Go,” random “Great Gig in the Sky”-styled backing vocals waft over miles and miles of gorgeous reverb guitar chime, Saulnier whining himself hoarse like Robert Smith in an insane asylum.
For all the ugliness, all the bitterness, all the fear and regret, Death Dreams can be devastatingly beautiful—most often when Saulnier shuts the hell up and leaves space for his guitar. There’s a reason the folks at Spin recently slapped his name on their “100 Greatest Guitarists” list: His amazing counterpoint wah-wah solo toward the end of “Red Quarter” would be the year’s finest guitar moment thus far if he hadn’t topped himself with a flat-out amazing burst of bluesy psychedelia on album standout “First Contact.” Then there’s the opening title track, an artful squall of white noise, cymbal splash and possessed guitar leads—all inspired by a melody (played by a “death march band”) Saulnier heard in a nightmare.
Quibbles can be made: While Saulnier is a captivating vocalist, the whole “voice cracking at the end of every single vocal phrase” thing gets old quickly, distracting from some otherwise engaging (if overly simple) melodies. And a few tracks (the shapeless “Toronto,” the skippable “Death Dreams II”) get by more on noise than song—a damn shame when the players are this strong. But it’s tough to complain when the rest is this arresting.
“Do you remember first contact? / 2010?,” Saulnier sings on “First Contact,” seemingly referencing his own band. Though there may be a few who can’t remember their first contact with PS I Love You, nobody who makes contact this time will likely forget.