By Clayton Ambrose
Artist: Brand New
Album: Science Fiction
Label: Procrastinate! Music Traitors
Release Date: August 17, 2017
Waiting on a new album from a band that you hold dearly is pure agony, which is an experience I’m sure is common amongst music fans. With each passing year, the hype increases and the excitement eventually converts into anxiety, making even the most hardcore of fans question, “Will this be worth it?” The cult of fans surrounding New Jersey rock band Brand New (including myself) know this feeling better than anybody, with seven years between their previous album Daisy and this year’s Science Fiction. So: was it worth it?
My answer is an definite and emphatic “yes”. Science Fiction is a tour de force that rewards fans and new listeners alike with a peak performance by a band that some might say peaked years ago. But all of the elation is quickly followed by a mournful aftertaste. This album will almost certainly be their last, and it shows. Science Fiction is the sonic equivalent of watching a man at the end of his life looking back on his triumphs and failures, with all the answered and unanswered questions in the mix. While the album doesn’t revel in the spoils of a 16-year-long musical conquest of the hearts and minds of many, that shouldn’t stop us from supporting a beloved group of artists by celebrating their marvelous and potentially final work.
Musically, this is Brand New’s most fully realized album, in the sense that it feels like we’ve finally arrived at the destination their career has been heading since they released Deja Entendu. Finally, the band completely embraces the ’90s alternative rock and grunge sound that they’ve flirted with for the past decade, and it couldn’t be more glorious. Because of this shift from the in-your-face loudness and pace of Daisy, Science Fiction is more willing to take its time, resulting in music that is more methodical and dynamic. This tone is set by the slow and eerie album opener “Lit Me Up” and is exemplified by songs like “Same Logic/Teeth” that shift between different decibel levels and segments with great grace and precision. While the wild and unhinged side of the band rears its head at several moments in the album, notably the tribal and pulse-pounding track “451”, you could nearly claim this album as mellow compared to the rest of their discography. Softer songs like “Waste” and “In The Water” radiate weariness and wistfulness, but it never gets boring and it never feels overly-sentimental or sappy, it just indicates that the band has reached a point where they can pump the brakes and make music that experiments and is daring without overwhelming or alienating the listener.
Considering the context of the album within the band’s career, it makes it especially poignant to have the album be contemplative without completely surrendering what makes them Brand New. Frontman Jesse Lacey also implements this “less-is-more” approach in his vocal performance. We only get to hear Lacey hit the upper registers on a few songs, as he mostly lays off the screaming and sticks with a low and clean voice for the duration of the album, emulating the grunge vocalists of yore while being unmistakably Lacey. It’s an appropriate choice, not only because of the general toned-down atmosphere of the music, but because of the contemplative nature of the lyrics as well.
The lyricism on the album is less overtly morbid and grim and more melancholy in a very real and tangible way. A lot of this is due to a good portion of the songs being about Lacey’s inner turmoil in relation to his perspective on Brand New and his own internal demons that he still continues to wrestle with. On “Can’t Get It Out” he tackles both, with Lacey lamenting the fact that his depression has kept his music from relaying the “positive message” he desperately wishes he could implement into his songs. One of the lower points on the album in terms of self-deprecation is “No Control”, where Lacey pleads “For the good/Of all man/Hold me down/Underwater and don’t let me up again”, while the chorus of the song admits to the fact that his well-being isn’t truly in his control. The album concludes similarly on an open-ended but bleak note with “Batter Up”, in which Lacey softly concludes that “it’s never going to stop”, relinquishing himself to the powers that be that inflict these mental burdens upon his shoulders.
In ruminating on Brand New’s legacy and impact at the end of their career, Lacey shows vulnerability on the topic like has never been heard before in his music, specifically in reference to his role as a creator of content and as an influential person in his time in the band. This is especially prevalent in “In The Water”, which acts as a swan song of sorts for the band, with Lacey bemoaning the fact that he never had a chance to “break apart our heart for them to see”, questioning what he really accomplished with the band and if he ever truly put all of his heart and his soul into his work. This becomes even more poignant with the inclusion of the tape audio from “Daisy” and an apparent allusion to “Limousine” off of The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me with the last lines being a recording of a voice saying “seven years” seven times. In “Out of Mana”, however, he reverses the tone with the line “I’ll break and create life/Oh praise player one”, with Lacey seeming to take great pride in his abilities as the architect of his art to destroy and create as he pleases. This dichotomy is representative of the seemingly contradictory emotions that Lacey has felt as a songwriter and that most artists feel in general: the rush of the creation but the fear of exposure. In this album, like in his career, Lacey is communicating the dilemma of being so impassioned to create but so afraid of what others might think of his bare thoughts and emotions. Lacey even places himself in a “messiah” position as a creator with a legion of devoted followers, which ends up being one of numerous allusions to religion on the album.
Brand New’s music has always been rife with religious references, specifically to the Christian faith, but in a marked departure from their previous work, Lacey seems to take a quite cynical approach to his perspective of a higher power. In “137” he paints the picture of a nuclear apocalypse scenario overseen by an indifferent and seemingly war mongering god, with one of the choruses beckoning to an unknown audience, “Let’s all go and meet our maker/They don’t care whose side you’re on”, even claiming that God told him to “love the bomb” in response to his fearful prayers. On “Could Never Be Heaven” Lacey puts on his best Morrissey impression and resigns himself to the idea of existing outside of Heaven, the “outer darkness” as he refers to it, as long as he gets to be with his family and the ones that he loves. This disenchanted take on God and the afterlife are a long shot from songs like “Jesus Christ” from their 2006 album The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me, where Lacey opens up a dialogue with the Son of God himself and, while certainly skeptical, seems to want to believe in a post-mortem destination, whereas on Science Fiction he appears to take a definitive position. This resolute stance in the face of eternity is reflective of a man and a band that understands their own finality, which could honestly be said for the album as a whole.
Science Fiction is essentially the best farewell message that a Brand New fan could ask for, if this is to be their last. Contradictory to how Lacey may feel, the sweat and blood pumped into this project is obvious for everyone listening, just like it’s been all throughout their career. Given the seven-year wait, this album could’ve easily been a disappointment, but Brand New gives us a work with heart, passion, and an exposed self-awareness that brings listeners in for a closer understanding of the band that has charmed and perplexed listeners for more than a decade and a half. The prospect of Brand New ending after all that time is a tough pill to swallow, but at least they gave us one last masterpiece for the road. So, as a final comment, I just want to say thank you. Thank you, Brand New, for making a musician and music lover out of me and millions of others across the globe. I hope you find peace after the tour has ended, the lights have dimmed, and you finally have time to rest your heads.