Album Review : Brand New - Science Fiction (2017)
* A big thank you to Axel Hassen Taiari for answering my questions about the band. *
The internet got its panties all twisted in a bunch over a new album by the band Brand New a couple weeks ago. That happens every now and then, but what made it intriguing to me is that I had no idea who these guys were. So, I asked. The short, boring answer is : Brand New is a rock band. The long version is that they're a legendary emo band, but it's even more complicated than that. Their sound evolved into a sophisticated blend of emo, post-hardcore and alternative rock that music lovers became rather fond of. So, I got curious and gave their new record Science Fiction a spin or two. And it didn't sound like anything I've expected. It didn't sound like anything I was even remotely used to.
And that's a great thing.
The first song Lit Me Up beautifully sets the tone for the album. It opens up with a minute-long sample of a therapy session set to ominous keyboards. So, imagine my surprised when Lit Me Up kicked into an spacey, minimalist and quite frankly gorgeous song filled with thought provoking symbolism of awakening and enlightenment: It lit me up like a torch on a pitch black night/Like an ember in the needles of a dried out pine. It set the tone for what Brand New offers on this album: precision and originality. Waste is another song I liked. It's much more of a conventional piece than Lit Me Up, but its anachronistic distorted guitars straight from a mid-nineties alternative rock compilation and its catchy, self-reflective chorus never fail to pull me under. The savant mix of new and familiar elements on Waste is intoxicating.
Speaking of the nineties, they're all over Science Fiction. For example, Out of Mana is a song I like despite myself. It has corny lyrics that draws easy parallels between video games and starting over after personal tragedy, but the KILLER throwback riffs and razor-sharp harmonies override their importance and command your attention. The influence of Nirvana can be felt on Science Fiction too, on songs likeLit Me Up and 137, which opens with twanging guitars that will remind the audience of iconic Nirvana songs like Comes As You Are, Lithium and All Apologies. 137 also has these awesome post-apocalyptic lyrics that mirror self-destruction. There's a parallel to be drawn between the overall atmosphere of Science Fiction and the work of Nirvana. Both were masters at creating eerie, but profound music using guitar riffs and allegoric lyrics.
Perhaps my favorite song on Science Fiction is Desert, a bluesy, deceptively simple scorcher about the vision of apocalypse of a man blinded by religion. There's some old school country influence to it, too. The narrator of Desert found the truth Brand New's frontman Jesse Lacey is desperately seeking on the other songs, but he gave up his sanity for it. The thoughtful allegories and symbolism make the lyrics of Science Fiction stand out from your standard emo "my girlfriend died and everything is falling apart" themes. These is beauty in Jesse Lacey's pain or at least, he found a way to express it without sounding corny. There's also a desire to get better in his lyrics, too. He's scrambling and looking for answers, which I can relate to better than some fucking mid-thirties guy imploring a woman to save him, save him, SAAAVVVE HIIIM, if you know what I mean.
That said, there were songs on Science Fiction I didn't care for. Can't Get it Out is another nineties throwback that doesn't have the memorable appeal of a 137 or an Out of Mana. I know it's supposed to be about writer's block, but there are several dick jokes to be made about the whiny, nasal chorus. The closer Batter Up is not a terrible song, per se. It's a pale counterpoint to Lit Me Up, but it's rather thoughtful and well-constructed. My problem with it is that you can't release a dark and self-reflective song called Batter Up when one of the most fun and festive summer song of the last fifteen years has the same title. The comparison will always make you seem like a self-important jerk. These are the two songs I thought were inherently problematic, but there are other songs on the record I found to be simply forgettable and uninspired, notably In the Water and No Control. There's nothing "wrong" with them, they just don't live up to the insane level of songwriting on this record.
Science Fiction is still the only music of Brand New I've listened to. I wanted to keep it that way for this review. Analyze the music in a vacuum. The main criticism towards Science Fiction is that it doesn't live up the the levels of emotional intensity of the prior records. That it feels safe and deliberate. I can't quite answer that, but I'll tell you this: Science Fiction is definitely intense, but it's also reflexive. It's music made by someone who took distance with his demons and looks back on a past that feels foreign to him. Science Fiction is a little uneven, but it's the real deal. There are some iconic rock songs and deep lyrics that are bound to mean the world to fans. I can see how it took seven years to come up with such record. In the immortal words of Anthony Fantano, I'm feeling a strong 7 to a light 8 on this one.