If you follow @psiloveyouband for any length of time on Twitter, you’ll quickly realize that PS I Love You singer/guitarist (as well as chief tweeter) Paul Saulnier is a pretty big fan of The Simpsons, and he isn’t above throwing out the odd quote. He’ll probably appreciate this oldie then, from the episode where Homer designs his own car, bankrupting his long-lost half-brother in the process. Before the Danny DeVito-voiced Herb Powell has the chance to call it a “monstrosity,” Homer describes his car in its introductory commercial as “powerful like a gorilla, yet soft and yielding like a Nerf ball.”
While Saulnier and drummer-in-arms Benjamin Nelson probably didn’t have this in mind as they were recording their newest album, Death Dreams, the line above sums up the 11-track effort as well as any 140-character-or-less TwitReview. In a short amount of time, PS I Love You have become renowned for their musical ferocity, especially live, and it’s not like they intended to let up here. There is, however, an underlying sense of overwhelming emotion that is much more present than on 2010’s Meet Me at the Muster Station. Saulnier has admitted that the title refers to recurring visions that he had on tour of his own life ending early.
It is against this somewhat morbid and depressing backdrop that listeners are welcomed with opener “Death Dreams”, an eerie and ominous instrumental dominated by Nelson’s cymbals like wind chimes in a howling storm. When Saulnier does come in, it is sparse, haunting, and teasing; his guitar squeal near the end foreshadows what’s to come. The next song, “Sentimental Dishes”, leaps out of the freshly dug grave, sounding raw and unprocessed in terms of studio chicanery, but with a poppy awareness that makes it about as mainstream and commercially viable as you’re going to get from them.
At this stage of his career at least, Saulnier is a far superior guitar player than lyric writer, and if Death Dreams suffers anywhere, it’s in this area. He effectively conveys the sense of despair the album title suggests with lines like “worst of my life” in “Don’t Go”, “suddenly I’m very afraid” (from “Princess Towers”), and “take me someplace nicer” (“Red Quarter”), but we strain to properly hear them amongst the amplified instrumentation. And the words “all I ever wanted” appear on no less than three separate songs, often accompanied by bestial yelping. “First Contact” at the end is a bit of a surprise in that everything comes together beautifully. It’s almost as if it took him 10 songs to gain enough confidence to say, “When I let you touch me,” which he pulls off with a –dare I say country-ish?– boogie-woogie vibe. It’s a good last impression that there’s more to Saulnier than mere face-melting.
But have no fear, there’s plenty of that. It’s stressful (“Toronto”), frantic (“How Do You Do”), and charmed with pure headbanging gold (“Princess Towers”). Last summer, Saulnier treated himself to a new double-neck guitar, and he’s put it to good use, cutting loose with wailing solos that plow through much of Death Dreams, offering a dense, heavier sound. Some tracks like “Don’t Go” border on thrash metal; although, at one point, there is a shift to a more traditional indie rock moaning. These transitions do get a little messy in places, and what’s worse, Saulnier’s singing doesn’t always keep up with the pace he and Nelson set. When it works, however, it’s more complex and experimental than the simplistic garage rock they’ve been associated with previously.
Death Dreams isn’t all banging and clanging, as suggested by the aforementioned Nerf ball quote. There’s an underrated vulnerability that’s been exposed here, which makes for a valuable listen. At face value, it’s a sophomore album that’s a little tangled, but there’s something admirable about that. Saulnier took a risk, dug real deep emotionally, and got a little lost in the process – but, when you get down to it, doesn’t everyone?
Homer’s car may have been a bust, but this sure isn’t. Roll down your windows and crank it.
Essential Tracks: “Princess Towers”, “Sentimental Dishes”, and “Red Quarter”
Feature artwork by Kristin Frenzel.