What Grieving People Wish You Knew by Nancy Guthrie, Free for CAPC Members
Nancy Guthrie’s overwhelming message in What Grieving People Wish You Knew is to enter into the awkwardness and difficulty of loving grieving people.
Brand New first began hinting that the band’s end was nigh in the fall of 2015, when enigmatic lead singer Jesse Lacey abruptly announced during a show in Nashville that “this isn’t going to last much longer.” It had been six years since the band last put out an album, and fans were beginning to wonder if a break up was on the horizon. The release of a T-shirt with an upside-down floral cross emblazoned with the epitaph, “Brand New, 2000–2018,” and a letter on Facebook apologizing for the new album’s delay seemed to confirm it. “What’s left should be a strange demise, but hopefully one as fun as the rest of our time together has been,” the letter read. “Please send flowers.”
To describe Brand New’s following as “cult-like” would be a bit of a cliché, but it’s entirely appropriate. Obsessive is another fitting word. They’re the kind of people who attempt to predict what new songs might sound like based on a rumor from a cousin’s friend’s sister who works at a music shop and claims she recently sold guitarist Vincent Accardi some effects pedals. They stalk Instagram accounts of family members and friends of the band, hoping to piece together enough information to formalize a theory of what Brand New has been up to all these years.Science Fiction is an album about the end: of relationships, of life, of Brand New.
So what has Brand New been up to? Well, getting their affairs in order.
They put out unheard tracks from old recording sessions as well as re-worked versions of songs that had previously been leaked. They toured some too, headlining a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden a full 15 years after their debut album, Your Favorite Weapon, made them the darlings of the early-2000s emo scene. And they wrote and recorded their long-awaited fifth (and apparently final) album.
And now, after nearly a decade of waiting, that album is here. And it is a stunning achievement. But to understand the cultural weight of Brand New’s latest release, it’s important to understand some context. To many, Brand New is a band that showed up on a mixtape made by a high school crush and little more. They’re a sentimental and bittersweet reminder of a past love or a forgotten friendship or the earnest person you yourself used to be. But there’s a reason Brand New reached the top of the Billboard charts in the year 2017, and it has nothing to do with nostalgia or sentimentality. It’s the result of two decades of doing the unexpected in an industry that values the sure bet.
Brand New’s entire career has been on its own terms, and from the outside looking in, it’s never really made much sense. After building a devoted fan base by singing about the heartaches of being young and in love, no one would have blamed the gang for going back into the studio and doing the same thing all over again. Instead, their sophomore album, 2003’s Deja Entendu (translation: “Already heard”) took things in a new, more mature direction, both sonically and lyrically. With consistent airplay on MTV and an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Brand New was pushed further into the mainstream.
Never fully comfortable with their fame, the band then stepped out of the spotlight. In the years that followed, each member experienced personal tragedies. “We became a little too comfortable with the idea of a funeral,” Lacey said. They returned in 2006 with their magnum opus: The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, a fierce masterpiece of an album that wrestles with death, fear, doubt, mental illness, and grief. As the title indicates, it’s a profoundly theological album: “Jesus Christ, I’m alone again / So what did you do those three days you were dead? / Because this problem’s going to last / More than the weekend.” It sounded unlike anything they had ever released before. It’s considered by many (including the band) to be Brand New’s crowning achievement, their career-defining album.
While most of their peers were quickly turning into emo nostalgia acts, Brand New was redefining their sound and creating some of the most interesting and genre-expanding rock music of the past two decades. Lacey, the charming, handsome lead singer, had become a prophet. With 2009’s Daisy, another chaotic, violent, and often abrasive exploration of the darkness within, Brand New’s evolution continued, and fans immediately started asking what could possibly come next.
And then… silence. For eight years. Until this past August, when Brand New surprised everyone by announcing that the new album was available for preorder on vinyl, with an October delivery date. After all these years of speculation, all these false alarms and delays, it was beginning to feel like this might actually be the real thing. Then, just two days after the preorder announcement, select fans began receiving CDs in the mail that were numbered out of 500. The CDs contained the entire album collapsed down to one 61-minute track called “44.5902N104.7146W,” the coordinates to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. On that same day, Brand New made the album available for download. The fabled fifth album finally had a title: Science Fiction.
The album cover sets the tone for the entire record. It’s nighttime, it’s raining, and it appears that two young women have jumped off a second-story balcony and are about to land on the black pavement. On second thought, maybe they’re being lifted up away from the earth, not falling toward it. There’s a Mercedes in the foreground with a license plate that reads “SOS 666”—meaning deliver us from evil, perhaps? Or maybe the band is in on the joke, and they’re just leaving bread crumbs for their fanatical followers.
Science Fiction is an album about the end: of relationships, of life, of Brand New. And that means it’s also an album about the past and the future. What did all of this mean? What happens next? The record opens with a foreboding tape of a woman who has undergone intensive therapy recounting a dream. It’s eerie and unsettling, as if we, the listeners, are the ones stuck in a dream. “While I don’t mind having all this going on inside of me,” she says, “I think I’m going to be relieved when it’s over and I can sort of settle back down.” The therapy session fades out, and the band slowly comes to life. The song never quite leaves that dreamlike state, as Lacey delivers lines like, “When I grow up, I want to be a heretic / I want to climb over the wall cause I’m not on the list” over a mesmerizing, almost soothing, bass line.
By the second track, though, we’re firmly in recognizable Brand New territory. Throughout the album, Brand New channels each of their previous records, and “Can’t Get It Out,” with its acoustic opener and chorus just begging to be screamed along with while driving down the interstate, is reminiscent of Deja Entendu. No one has ever accused Brand New of being too optimistic (if I had to describe their music, I’d probably call it “a soundtrack of relentless, endless existential dread”), and Lacey is uncertain of the rather somber legacy he’s leaving behind: “Not just a manic depressive / Toting around my own crown / I’ve got a positive message / Sometimes I can’t get it out.” There’s a dose of humor here, but mostly frustration.
Whenever anything significant in life comes to an end, we tend to reflect on the journey that got us to where we are, and Brand New is no exception. In “Same Logic/Teeth,” Lacey sings about how he feels like a “monster in a costume” who can’t seem to escape his “brand new face”—that is, the persona and reputation he’s developed from his time in this band. Mostly, Lacey just seems glad that it’s all coming to an end. “It’s all in your head / your race is run,” he sings on “Waste.” “Don’t give up, my son / This is the last one.”
In a way, Science Fiction could be described as an eschatological album, in which the end, even in the form of a violent apocalypse, is a welcome development. In any other year, “137,” a song about nuclear annihilation, would have come across as a heavy-handed, even inappropriate, metaphor. But in a year when the president of the United States threatens nuclear war on Twitter, it feels oddly relevant. But here the nuclear apocalypse is not something to be avoided but embraced. This is Brand New’s idea of hope: if we all have to die, at least we can all die together! “What a lovely way to die / A final show and we all go / So no one has to say goodbye.”
What I think Lacey is getting at here, though, isn’t nihilism, but a type of love. When Brand New formed, he was a young man. He’s almost 40 now. He’s married. He’s a father. He’s thinking about the end and is frightened by the idea of either leaving his family or being left behind. We see this in “Could Never Be Heaven” too. “We are not separate / My daughter’s shoulders are my shoulders / My son’s hands my hands / My wife’s heart my own heart,” he sings. “Could never be heaven without you.”
Ultimately, though, there seems to be a profound ambivalence, an emptiness that feels especially final. This is most clear in “Batter Up,” the last song on Science Fiction. Lacey takes one more look at the past and… shrugs. He seems haunted by those four, paralyzing words: what could have been. “In the valley of your slowly-fading memory / Are there pastures bathed in some uncertain light where you won’t graze? / Paths you won’t take?” As he quietly says his goodbyes to Brand New, that is, his entire adult life up to this point, he sings, “It’s never going to stop / … Don’t get what you want / Batter up.” It’s as if he’s saying, Well, we tried. Good luck. The song, the album, the band fades into distortion and feedback.
So is it really the end? Yes, probably. Although not quite yet. They’re on tour now, but after that, it’s anyone’s guess what happens next. If the T-shirts are to be believed, Brand New will disband next year, and an era of music that provided the soundtrack to so many young adults will officially be over. Science Fiction is a fitting, triumphant coda.
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