Guitarist and singer Paul Saulnier, one half of the Ontario duo PS I Love You, waves his rock fanboy flag so proudly he all but dares listeners to snicker at his sincerity. Saulnier sings with a quiver that fulcrums between countrymen Spencer Krug and Geddy Lee, and mixes and matches Alex Lifeson’s busybody fretwork and Thurston Moore’s blissful dissonance with little concern for the aesthetic barricades between Rush and Sonic Youth fans. But Saulnier’s Guitar Center theatrics aren’t even the least cool element of PS I Love You’s sophomore album, Death Dreams, or the most artistically brave. His lyrics flaunt his depression and fear as boldly as “Princess Towers” flaunts his guitar god aspirations; even when Saulnier and drummer Benjamin Nelson lock in to a Cheap Trick-worthy strut on “Sentimental Dishes,” it feels like he’s harnessing the power of classic-rock archetypes to shore himself up to face his doubts.
Sauliner’s vocals are coated in distortion and mixed well below his band’s squall, but given enough time, lyrics emerge through the hiss to reveal a man trapped in his own anxious head. (Variations on “All I ever wanted was more than I ever had” and “never be free” recur throughout Dreams.) Sometimes the music reflects this nervous energy; the “Death Dreams” instrumentals are nauseating contractions and swells of sharp notes that feel like a tightening chest, while “Future Dontcare” relentlessly piles on melancholic guitar lines to emulate a man too weighed down by regret to appreciate a nice summer. But elsewhere Nelson and Saulnier sound determined to fight this inner paralysis with all the force they can muster. “Don’t Go” pits slow-rolling guitar shimmer atop a steady thump, and “Red Quarter” flashes a triumphant crescendo and a shamelessly wah-wahed-out guitar solo. By album-ender “First Contact” the pair have accumulated enough momentum that they sound ready to bust out of Saulnier’s self-conscious mind and take the rest of the world on, one graceful guitar burst at a time.