(photo: Yoshi Cooper)
Last week disgruntled Toronto punks PUP, who are performing at the Rickshaw Stop on June 9, released the follow-up to their shit-kicking eponymous debut record. It’s entitled The Dream Is Over, a phrase, at first glance, intuitively poetic before settling in as inherently tragic. The fact is most of us go on our entire lives without ever truly admitting to ourselves that our ideals have expired, that what the world could have looked like is no longer what the world can look like. While many have entrenched themselves deep into a routine of settling for less, almost everyone who does so holds onto their true aspiration as if it was the last ember of a flame that could rise again at any moment. But chances are the costs are too high and your dream won’t be worth the trouble — generally we give up, but we never allow ourselves to admit that we did.
Yet Stefan Babcock, PUP’s lead singer, has no illusions — he’s lived his dream and realized that it absolutely sucks. He catalogues the grueling nature of life on the road on The Dream Is Over’s guttural opener “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will,” spewing vitriol towards his bandmates and how awful it is seeing them morning after morning. There and elsewhere on the record he admonishes his own reckless drinking and masochistically ritualistic lifestyle, which alone could be enough to break anyone’s spirit. But the band’s insane touring regimen (with more than 250 shows in support of their debut album) went even so far as to rip away at Babcock’s ability to continue on PUP’s disheveled path. Between the band’s last album and The Dream is Over, Babcock’s doctor told him that their grueling tour schedule had led to a hemorrhaged cyst on his vocal cords. The doctor literally used the phrase “the dream is over” in suggesting that Babcock retire from music.
Receiving a time of death on your vocal cords would signal to most that they should take it easy, yet Babcock didn’t sit back from PUP and ice his throat. This band is his everything. If he’s lamenting sleeping on the floor and running out of interest in his bandmates, he also knows he wouldn’t care for any alternative. “Why can’t we just get along?” he pleads during “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will,” but he’s asking the question so loud that the volume starts to feel like a solution in itself. Babcock puts his entire soul into PUP, so even if the band has led to little in the way of a comfortable lifestyle, Babcock’s own echo acts as enough of a reward to carry on. Defying his doctor’s recommendation and launching right back into PUP louder than ever, Babcock took a risk that most wouldn’t even consider as an option.
With a more measured approach to protecting his voice, yet with no less intensity in his actual performance, Babcock has proven that some dreams aren’t worth letting go of despite all obstacles indicating otherwise. Any doubts that The Dream Is Over would be tamer than PUP due to the medical diagnosis are eliminated 54 seconds into the record when Babcock unleashes a punishing yowl capable of shattering bone. Babcock sounds reinvigorated in the face of bad news, but is still wrestling with the question of what to do with the residual reality after accepting that his dream job is nothing like what he felt entitled to, yet is still the only thing he finds worth doing. PUP may not have reached any happy endings, but the band proves that exclamation can be more cathartic than resolution, anyway.
The Dream Is Over is an immediate record — one that feels like a physical presence right there with you in the room. You can’t help but wonder if the band couldn’t quite possibly live up to it’s energy in concert, because the album already sounds more alive than most humans seem to have the capacity for. But you shouldn’t underestimate PUP for a second — after all this is a band that almost burnt out in a blaze of disastrous glory from the intensity of their live shows.
And Babcock has only come back stronger and more resolute in his ambitions to lash out at reality. This is a band that makes running on empty seem like one hell of a ride. Babcock may be self-deprecating about his constant fucking-up, but when his gripes are so resoundingly backed up by his choral of bandmates at a tempo equivalent to doing 90 on the freeway, the resulting blur makes the romantic instability and professional volatility resemble goals to strive for. It’s all enough to make you believe that maybe he is living the dream after all.