Album Review: Brand New - Science Fiction

The year is 2017 and much to my surprise, similarly to how I felt about Kesha, I am, in earnest, listening to the new album from Brand New.

The first time I encountered Brand New was by accident. It was the summer of 2002, and someone had mislabeled an mp3 I downloaded off of Audio Galaxy. I thought I had downloaded the song “Tip Your Bartender” by Glassjaw—but what I got instead was “The Shower Scene” by the power-punk/emo outfit Brand New.

The second time I encountered Brand New was a few months after that during my sophomore year of college when, on a random afternoon, I happened to catch the music video for “Jude Law and The Semester Abroad.” I was 19 at the time, and after some gateway dabbling, was just starting to get into emo as a genre. Shortly after seeing the video, I picked up a copy of the band’s debut album, Your Favorite Weapon. I recall being nonplussed by a majority of it, and a quick scan of the previews in the iTunes store confirms that, 16 years later, it hasn’t aged well.

The third time I encountered Brand New was in 2003, when they released their sophomore album, Deja Entendu. I probably would have not bought it had it not been for hearing snippets of the moody yet affable single “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” played in the entertainment section at Target. Again, I can recall being nonplussed, and wondering why I had given the band another chance.

My problem with Brand New was (and kind of still is) is that in the early days, they really didn’t take themselves all that seriously, and for some reason, I demand that my guitar driven music not have a sense of humor. So the jokey titles and self-aware lyrics to songs on the first two albums were kind of a deal breaker.

The fourth time I encountered Brand New was just the other day, when I a) downloaded their two latter day albums, and b) got a copy of their fifth (and possibly final) effort, Science Fiction.

Somewhere along the way, Brand New grew up. I mean, once an emo kid, always an emo kid, but they tried. They got dark and serious—a sound they debuted on their third and seminal album, The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me—looked back on now as a turning point for the band and a modern classic of sorts. Raging was released in 2006, and by that point, I had outgrown music like this, so I did not pay any attention to it, or its follow up, 2009’s Daisy.

Somewhere over the course of the last eight years, Brand New was some how able to transcend itself and cultivated a hallowed mythology for itself as a band. Perhaps it has to do with how enigmatic they can be at times; perhaps it has to do with how they’ve prophesized their own end—touring with t-shirts that read “Brand New: 2000-2018.” Perhaps its has to do with how a band that should have faded away into obscurity based on how their first album sounds (post-Green Day mall-core), but, instead, decided to grow up and get weird.

The roll out for Science Fiction was sudden; one day, there was an option to purchase “LP5” on very limited vinyl on the band’s website. It was spendy ($40 or $50 I think?) and there was no other information about its contents, other than it’d be released sometime in October.

Needless to say as word spread, these limited LPs sold out and the website loaded a blank white page. Within two days of this mystery pre-order, fans who were lucky enough to snag a copy received a CD in the mail; the CD contained the new album as one seamless track. Over the course of the day, information about the contents (song titles, etc) were revealed online, and then the big reveal—the album was officially available—immediately for download, and in two months for physical copies.

Last year, I discovered that ‘emo music for adults’ can be a thing, with the second LP from American Football—to an extent, Sorority Noise may fall into this category as well; and while they didn’t begin that way, Brand New has eased and aged their way into that subgenre—finding the balance (uneven at times) of pathos, self-deprecation, and humor.

If the band is calling it quits next year in an effort to ‘stay 18 forever,’ Science Fiction is an album that literally signals the beginning of the end—the moody, murky opening track, “Lit Me Up,” opens with an eerie audio tape of a therapy session: “This tape recounts a dream which occurred close to the termination of approximately 400 hours of intensive individual therapy,” a disembodied male voice says. “Now the patient recounts her dream.” Given the band’s mythology and advertised end, it is all too easy to read way too much into that, as well as the final line spoken by the woman being interviewed: “I don’t mind having all this going on inside of me, it’s sort of—I think I’m going to be relieved when it’s over and I can settle back down.”

While “Lit Me Up” burns slowly, serving as a nearly perfect introduction to the album, it’s the second track, “Can’t Get it Out” that ushers in the sound that fans will be familiar with; it’s also one of the finest moments on the record, and possibly one of the most visceral and identifiable songs of 2017. “But I guess that’s just depression—no sense in fighting in now,” Brand New’s moody frontman Jesse Lacey screams. “You had me caught in your headlights. You were running me down.”

“Can’t Get it Out” is one of many songs on the record that fall into self-aware territory. It’s a song that knows its by the band Brand New—“Got my messiah impression,” Lacey continues in the second verse. “I think I got it nailed down.” The imagery and pun alone are stunning, but Lacey’s admittance to his messiah complex, religious upbringing, and the band’s own cult following make this lyric, as well as this song, one that haunts you long after the rest of the album is over.

For somebody who is relatively private the way Lacey comes across, there is quite a bit of him in this record—the somber, acoustic “Could Never Be Heaven” discusses a vivid dream and makes mention of his wife and children, and the surprisingly bluesy, adult contemporary sounding “In The Water” alludes to the band’s past by referencing lyrics from Daisy and The Devil and God.

Outside of these introspective moments, Science Fiction is dense and demanding listen—both musically speaking, as well as the songs that are slightly less obvious in their interpretation; all of which arrives with mixed results.

The psychedelic alternative rock of “Waste” slows the pacing of the record down slightly, but that’s okay because it leads into the aforementioned “Could Never Be Heaven.” The band attempts to bridge the gap between the ‘scream-o’ past and the more serious nature of its latter day work, all while discussing an attempted suicide, on “Same Logic/Teeth.”

Science Fiction concludes with a lengthy, tender ballad, “Batter Up,” the kind of song that seems like it was written—or at least arranged musically—to be sequenced at the end. While the final moments end in dissonance and various tones of feedback and warbled sounds, the overall pensive feeling and restraint in Lacey’s voice shows what kind of artist and musician he grew into. Yes, he can scream and yell—he built a career out of it 17 years ago, and he’s still doing it now, but he got older, and tried his hardest to put a bulk of that behind him.

If this truly is Brand New’s swan song, it’s a bold, artistic way to end a bizarre ride. Truthfully, this band should not have made it out of the early 2000s alive—possibly not even to a second album, but unlike a number of other similarly mind acts from the same era, Brand New tried, for better or for worse, to grow up with their audience. The band was in its early 20s when it started, and they are pushing 40 now. Sure, they still have a jokey, hard to Google search band name, and yes, they are still trying to strike that balance between taking themselves too seriously and not taking themselves seriously at all, but even for a passing fan, or former listener, Science Fiction is worth sitting with, from start to finish, at least once. When it works, it really works; when it buckles under its own ambition or is uneven, you’ll wince a little, but it is still a part of the fascinating cohesive whole.

Science Fiction is out now as a digital download, via the band's vanity label Procrastinate Music Traitors; both the CD and LP versions will be available 'in October.'