Dose Your Dreams represents a new high-water mark for the band.
Always different, always the same, Toronto’s Fucked Up have been honing their art-punk bona fides for more than a decade now, long ago surpassing their early, barreling hardcore with epic concepts and arrangements that have taken punk past even its loosest limits. At some point, the band even went past frontman Damian Abraham’s notion of what the group should be, and his attempts to curb the group’s runaway progressive tendencies influenced 2014’s Glass Boys, their most straightforward LP and a self-consciously conservative step back from the group’s last few albums. A fine work in its own right, Glass Boys nonetheless felt like too large a step backward, and the muted reception it received prompted Abraham to pull back his input for Fucked Up’s next album, deferring to guitarist Mike Haliechuk and drummer Jonah Falco. As if to cement the idea that the band were getting back on track, Dose Your Dreams follows the narrative of David Comes to Life, tracking that album’s titular hero as he finds himself numbed by office doldrums.
If David is stuck in an existential rut, Fucked Up illustrate his plight with their most ambitious offering yet. “None of Your Business Man” opens the album with piano and strings over two female voices ethereally singing separate lyrics that take the perspectives of two people each describing their relationship in different but tonally similar paeans to love that culminate in darker ruminations on that love being lost. Then, the track lurches into a stomping rocker propelled equally by charging riffs and saxophone moans that hurl themselves around Abraham’s trademark roar. At first, the lyrics are humorous, with David awkwardly bumbling his way through work with lines like. “Perhaps I’ll go look somewhere else, and thank you very much as well/ Oh, now my coat’s caught on a tack, tonite I’ll have to sew it back/ A coffee, yes, I won’t decline, now look I’ve spilled some on my tie!” It’s Gilbert and Sullivan meets X-Ray Spex, verbally dexterous satire barked with fury rather than sung drolly.
This cavalcade of intersecting sounds and styles sets up the rest of the album’s disparate arrangements. “Raise Your Voice Joyce” introduces Joyce Tops, an old woman who shakes David out of his waking stasis and sets him off on a spirit quest, with percolating keyboards that shimmer around Haliechuk and Ben Cook’s guitars and add a vaguely psychedelic tenor to Abraham’s savage vocals, which make Joyce sound more like a drill instructor than a soothing svengali. “Torch to Light” rises out of lo-fi hiss and post-rock elegance before a shuddering riff kicks the song into next gear, while “House of Keys” rolls out on the ominous, cinematic blurts of ‘80s dark synthpop before mingling with industrial noise. “Mechanical Bull” sounds like an underground club banger forged out of a decayed sample of arcade chiptunes, a clanging backdrop that nonetheless resolves to primitive digital squelches. Fucked Up have toyed with some of these sounds before, but usually confined them to small flourishes here and there, or centered them in the band’s Zodiac 12” singles. By threading together every single genre and method that has ever interested the sextet across a double-LP, they consolidate the group’s experimental forays into the most cohesive document yet of their vast multitudes.
That this is accomplished by frequently sidelining, and sometimes entirely removing, Abraham is all the more remarkable. Take “Normal People,” in which significant vocal duties are split between Abraham, Falco, Haliechuk, singer/songwriter John Southworth and community and arts organizer Amy Gottung. As the rhythm section and guitarists lay down a glam stomp, the vocalists leap and float around each other, offering not merely background choruses but differing perspectives and vocal styles. “How to Die Happy” hands off the mic entirely to You’ll Never Get to Heaven’s Alice Hansen for a cooing, dream pop vocal matched in kind by the gentle squall of the guitars. There are several other guest leads dotted across the album, notably Jennifer Castle backed by Dinosaur Jr legend J Mascis on “Came Down Wrong,” though perhaps the most moving co-lead vocal involves Abraham swapping verses with Haliechuk’s haunted whisper on the title track.
Despite Abraham’s lack of lyrical and, occasionally, vocal input, the frontman in no way feels diminished on Dose Your Dreams. Quite the opposite; he throws himself into the songs with his usual zeal. Haliechuk’s lyrics are often lofty and wordy, but in Abraham’s furious yelps he manages to make lines like, “An angel watched history sell the ringing bells of make believe” sound urgent and anthemic. As on David Comes to Life, his immediate, overwhelming voice and passionate delivery overcome the pitfalls of punk concept albums, never letting the emotion and energy wane even in slower numbers. And if Abraham considered his punk-roots approach to Glass Boys a failure that the band needed to overcome, this album has more than enough throwbacks to punks past to fold the previous record into the great melting pot of influences. “Came Down Wrong,” befitting its legendary guest vocalist, sounds like an ‘80s college indie anthem, while “The One I Want Will Come for Me” straight up could pass for a Warner-era Hüsker Dü rarity. “Tell Me What You See” even has the revved-up bubblegum energy of the Ramones, all the while advancing the album’s story with swells of lyrical pomp.
By the time the album closes out with the motorik rhythm and lifting strings of “Joy Stops Time,” Fucked Up have traversed pop punk, post-hardcore, industrial metal, even techno, all while crafting songs that never get away from their core ferocity. Like the best rock concept albums, the ins and outs of the story ultimately matter less than the immediacy of each song in appealing to the listener and Haliechuk’s writing manages to be poetic and direct, each track an ode to loneliness, aggression and self-exploration that lingers long after the particulars of David’s own journey. At once their most dizzyingly complex and accessible album, Fucked Up’s fifth LP feels like the full delivery on a promise scattered over four excellent albums and a number of 7” and 12” singles and EPs. Dose Your Dreams represents a new high-water mark for the band, and for 21st-century post-hardcore punk.