Review Summary: Breathtaking, magnificent, and compelling. Brand New’s crowning achievement as one of the most important rock bands of the 2000’s.
Sometimes you just know when an album is an instant classic. That feeling you get during the first listen…each track seems to glide seamlessly from one to the next while carrying you on a musical odyssey. Of course the qualities of the experience are entirely up to the listener and his/her personal preferences. For some, the ultimate musical experience is complete sensory ambience…an atmosphere that is so heavy you can almost reach out and touch your surroundings, tasting every note that is played by a soulful guitarist or eloquently expressed by an artistic vocalist. Others prefer something more basic. Some of us want that perfect album to serenade us with clean vocals, catchy hooks, and an infectious rhythm that never relents for the entire album’s duration. No matter the genre that you listen to, there will always be certain criterion that separates the classic albums from the ones that are just great. Brand New’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me made me realize what that distinction was for me.
The Devil And God (TDAG) takes little pieces from many of the aforementioned areas and fuses them into one undeniably soul-penetrating experience. There are moments where the atmosphere will overtake you, and there are moments that will have you bobbing your head/swaying from side to side in your car or your computer chair. But the most arresting facet of the album is its sheer emotion. Lacey’s captivating lyrics and his delivery are impeccable – you can literally feel the weight of every word as it hovers over your mind momentarily; and then again as it comes crashing down in a wave of utter hopelessness. It is important to note, however, that while TDAG may seem to be devoid of optimism at times, it is actually a uniformly inspiring album with underlying hopefulness expressed throughout. To uncover that, one must read into the lyrics and perhaps also take into account that Brand New’s follow-up record, Daisy, is actually more of an embodiment of hopelessness. If Lacey is expressing any kind of loss on this album, it is not a loss of hope but rather a loss of innocence, as he wails lines such as:
I used to pray like God was listening
I used to make my parents proud
I was the glue that kept my friends together
Now they don’t talk and we don’t go out
This sentiment is an ongoing theme in TDAG, with both music and lyrics that seem to suggest that behind every coarse scream is an innocent boy trying to hold onto the promise of his childhood. And it is very obvious that there is something – perhaps many things – that have led Lacey to want to abandon hope. Songs like Degausser, Limousine, and You Won’t Know are all relative black holes when it comes to self-assurance:
When we were made we were set apart
Life is a test and I get bad marks
Now some saint got the job of writing down my sins
The storm is coming, the storm is coming
They say in heaven
There's no husbands and wives
On the day that I show up
They'll be completely out
Of their forgiveness supplies
And I cant use the telephone
To tell you that I'm dead and gone
So you won't know
Then, of course, there is “Limousine”, which is an epic written about the death of seven year old Katie Flynn. Katie was killed in a car accident that involved a drunk driver. At 7:42, the song covers a lot of ground. At various points, the song (still sung by Lacey) is narrated from multiple perspectives, including the driver responsible for Katie’s tragic death. “Limousine” is quite possibly the pinnacle of TDAG, starting with the squeaking of acoustic strings over Jesse’s somber vocals. Following a couple of pace changes, the song kicks into full gear with a repetition of, Well I love you so much, but do me a favor baby don’t reply. Because I can dish it out, but I can’t take it
. The climax is a well placed and emotionally charged guitar solo that eventually fades into static and an almost inaudible voice recording by the producer, Mike Sapone. When the dust has settled, so to speak, the listener essentially has no choice but to sit there in awe over what has just transpired. Limousine is not only the quintessence of where Brand New was at emotionally during the time, but it is also evidence of the unmeasurable maturation of the band since only three years earlier when they released Deja Entendu. In a very short period of time, they grew from teen angst-ridden rock stars to artistic statesmen on the mortality and existence of people in our generation.
As I stated before, though, not everything about this album is doom and gloom. There are glimmers of hope to be found in tracks like “Jesus” and “Luca”. “Jesus” seems to be a message directly from Jesse to God, imploring God to both give him a sign but also not to trust him. In “Luca”, he states:
No one can save you now
Unless you have friends among fish
There'll still be no air to breathe
You could drink up the entire ocean
I'll still find someone to be everything we know that you'll never be
Dark? Sinister? Depressing? Maybe. But Lacey has a way of singing it, especially within that last line of the lyrics, which almost makes it sound optimistic. Like with many of the other songs that feature a similar lyrical pattern, he will follow something extremely hopeless and dark with a small sliver of light. His words have the effect of the sun peaking through the clouds on a gray and cloudy evening. They give you a dark impression, show you a small slice of hope, and then quickly close it off. Whether or not the clouds then open up entirely and give way to the sun is left up to the listener. In a way this is how I interpreted the album’s title. In every song, Jesse has an unspeakable evil that is raging and waiting to break free. But then he also has God on his side, even if his faith has for the most part been left in his past, as the bleak lyrics of Millstone suggest.
There is really only one track on this album that breaks away from the monotonous “treading on” that defines TDAG. “Not the Sun” is one of the few songs on the album that starts off with a kick. The bass and drum combination is noticeable from the get go, and it is only 7 seconds until the song has pulled into high gear. Lacey’s vocals are also very different on this track and provide a breath of fresh air for anyone who can’t stomach the crooning, wailing, and introspective tones that are characteristic of the talented vocalist and songwriter. Other than this track (and perhaps also “Archers”), every song begins rather slowly and works together to create a tangible atmosphere of emotion.
While it is true that the album’s highlights can be mostly found within the core of the material, the first and last tracks act as bookends that carefully prop up all of Brand New’s violently swirling ideas and keep them contained in a neat, tidy package. “Sowing Season” is just one of many exercises in Brand New’s perfected soft-to-loud musical progression. It commences with a rather dull sounding couple of lines, “Losing all your friends, losing them to drinking and to driving…” before erupting with several shrieks of “yeah” followed by some of the album’s most telling lyrics:
Time to get the seeds into the cold ground
It takes a while to grow anything
Before it's coming to the end
As many listeners of TDAG have observed, this album deals with sin, mortality, and innocence. Looking at the seeds as the things you choose to do and choose to believe in, Jesse is basically saying you reap what you sow. Or, on an even deeper level, he might be suggesting that it doesn’t matter how you plan your life, because it is all “coming to an end” anyway. The album’s closer, “Handcuffs”, echoes this mentality with lyrics like “It’s hard to be the better man, when you forget you’re trying”. Even though this song was written by Accardi, not Lacey, their intentions still seem to be on the same page, further showing the consistency across this album from start to finish.
All in all, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me is an album that will make you feel something. I know that it made me view myself, my existence, and my religion, in a whole different light. Songs like Limousine hit me close to home (I had a very close friend die in a car accident right around the time of this album’s release), and others (Archers, Not the Sun) kept me in check and made me remember that the point of music is to enjoy yourself. That, combined with all of the deep messages that I received from the album, is what elevated TDAG to an instant classic in my mind. My interpretation of it is certain to be different from yours, and yours is certain to be from many others’. That is what a truly great work of art will do. It may divide people on a basis of individual opinion, but the only reason they can disagree is because they were all captivated by its luster to begin with.