PUP // The Dream is Over
by Eric Benoit on July 19, 2016
Posted in: Album Review, Music, Pop Punk, Punk, Rock
Fact: “The Dream is Over” is a direct quote from lead singer Stefan Babcock’s doctor. After Stefan basically destroyed his vocal chords due to the band’s insane touring schedule of about 250 shows a year, he was rewarded with this crushing diagnosis. But if the story sounds a little ridiculous or overly serious to you, you’re not alone. As Stefan himself explains, “To be told that you can’t [pursue your dreams] any more, that’s one of the hardest things in the world. But it was also so funny, because who the fuck says that?!”
The contradiction between these two responses to tragedy – absolute desperation versus making fun of your self-seriousness – is one of the core conflicts that elevate the Toronto group’s second album far beyond your average punk-rock effort. On the very first track, PUP screams, “I’m trying not to let you get in my head, but every line, every goddamn syllable that you say makes me wanna gouge out my eyes with a power drill.” It’s easy to laugh at the exaggeration while still recognizing the pain at the center of the statement. Charmingly titled “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You Then I Will,” the song takes the dark side of the touring business and drags it screaming into the spotlight. Nobody likes to spend so much time with friends and band-mates that everyone ends up hating each other’s guts. But for many bands, PUP included, that’s exactly what happens after a full year on the road. (Content Warning: The video below, as you can tell from the screenshot/title, contains some seriously graphic and violent imagery! It’s also quite funny. Watch at your own risk).
It would be easy to assume that The Dream is Over refers only to the doctor’s dire conclusion about Stefan’s career. But as the opening track shows us, the title extends far beyond the literal, referring to the core anxiety driving the band’s frantic energy. This is an album about disillusionment, about realizing the shallowness of your childhood hopes for the future. It’s the feeling of finally achieving something you’ve worked hard for while second-guessing yourself every step of the way, only to find that your success doesn’t erase your deeply ingrained self-doubt.
PUP takes us through a buffet of self-destructive thoughts and actions, from drinking, violence, and puking, to hating your band members and (most of all) hating yourself, all wrapped up in stories so depressing it sometimes feels like torture-porn. Over the slight 30-minute runtime, pets die (Sleep in the Heat), lakes in desolate fishing towns kill people every spring (The Coast), relationships fail to start or they end too soon (DVP, My Life is Over and I Couldn’t Be Happier), and oh yes, did I mention the abundant self-doubt and self-hatred?
Sounds pretty heavy, but much of the album’s brilliance comes from the fact that it’s brutally, acidly funny, and also really fun to listen to. But unlike an album such as Passion Pit’s fantastic Gossamer (2012) – a record about the lead singer/songwriter’s struggles with depression, bipolar disorder, and self-loathing (sound familiar?) that I nonetheless once heard blasting through speakers at Six Flags – nobody would mistake PUP’s energy and pop songwriting sensibilities for optimism. Still, the band asserts that the record isn’t just doom and gloom, and they approach their topics much more subtly than their assault of drums and screaming might initially suggest.
Take the final track (“Pine Point”). Just after telling us about his brother’s death when they were kids, Stefan sings, “In Pine Point, I kept my eyes on the prize, and it was you,” and he desperately repeats, “I hope you know what you’re doing after all.” The album concludes on a complicated but arguably positive note – PUP has been chasing their dreams, the “you” referenced in the song, but just like in relationships, jobs, and most everything else in life, they’ve realized that achieving your dreams can make you realize how unfulfilling they were from the beginning. Still, the song suggests, the best of us keep striving to make things better for ourselves and others. Somehow, people find the strength to overcome internal and external doubt and create something truly great, which is exactly what PUP has managed to do.
The irony, cynicism, and exaggeration remind me of another great record, one that came out in 2015 – Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. But there’s a crucial difference between Father John Misty’s irony and self-deprecation versus PUP’s. As my friend and fellow WRMC reviewer Jeff Holland once pointed out, Father John Misty acts like a stereotypical “self-aware pretentious millennial adult.” He practices a sort of sneering and self-aggrandizing irony that belittles just about everything it touches. Whenever he threatens to become sincere, he undercuts himself with another layer of sarcasm, all wrapped in a faux easygoing fuck-all attitude. Even with the album’s frequent self-belittlement, the listener comes away with the sense that Father John Misty is maybe a little too proud of himself for being so clever. It’s all part of his carefully constructed image, which makes it difficult to tell where the character ends and the person begins.
PUP, on the other hand, act like self-aware but angst-filled teenagers, even though they’re all in their mid-20s. As a result, they’re able to portray themselves as sincere, even when they shout immature lines like “I might die of this boredom if you don’t kill me first!” Their often-hilarious self-deprecation acts as a counterweight to their immature whining. After all, it’s hard to believe that Stefan is being totally serious when shouts in DVP, “Three beers and I’m so messed up… she says I drink too much / Hawaiian Red Fruit Punch!” Just like Father John Misty, they’re winking at the audience throughout much of the album. The difference is, despite their huge accomplishment with this record, they don’t actually seem very impressed with themselves. I come away from The Dream is Over with a strong sense of compassion for the band, and with a sense that as long as we stick together through the bullshit, it’ll be OK.
And that, I believe, is the reason why PUP asserts they’ve made a positive album despite its dark themes. Their music invites and rewards empathy from all its listeners, something we could all use a bit more of in what has become an increasingly heated domestic and international political climate. Listen to the album, and then give someone you love a hug. The truth is, we all need it.
Also, it’d be crazy for me not to tell you to watch the music video for “DVP.” It’s hilarious, nostalgic, and brilliant.
Random trivia: Did you know that “PUP” stands for “Pathetic Use of Potential?” Well, you do now. Go tell all your friends.
BEST TRACKS: 1, 2, 4, 8, 10
RIYL: Titus Andronicus, Beach Slang, The Hotelier, Japandroids
The Dream is Over was released May 27th on SideOneDummy Records. You can download it from iTunes or stream it on Spotify.