Review Summary: One more time with feeling.“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. When I can sort of settle back down…”
Artistic legacy can be a tricky thing: you often can’t manipulate it, only present your work and let those who choose to engage with it shape one for you. I don’t think Brand New knew they were going to take off when they were known as The Rookie Lot. I don’t think they knew Deja Entendu
or The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me
would later become some of the most influential records to an entire next generation of pop punk, emo, and indie rock musicians. We certainly know they didn’t imagine that latter record would leak in an incomplete form of since-reworked demos months before its scheduled release and send the band back to the drawing board.
But this is a different story. After seven years playing things tight-lipped and mysterious - one has to assume by design to avoid repeating that same accident - last year the band hinted they would break up in 2018, leaving their days to return with new material numbered. And when that time came, it came without warning. Was the surprise 500 copy pre-order announcement and subsequent leak a convoluted marketing strategy" Of course, but as this record’s cover and prior quotes would suggest, sometimes you’ve got to take a leap from out the window when it’s way too far to go through the door. Unconventionality has been a substantial part of Brand New’s appeal for a while now. Combined with their relative silence, the band’s enigma had almost superseded them. But disregard the album title for a moment, because Science Fiction
isn’t anything alien beneath its eerie instrumentation and soundbite-laden bells and whistles. The unflinching honesty that made many a depressed teen flock to the band in the first place remains front and center, and this time it’s marinated in almost a decade’s worth of pressure and suspense. Fan speculation aside, this is almost surely the Long Island quartet’s swan song, and if it’s not, they’ll be hard-pressed to top it.
I make that claim not only because it's musically a culmination of everything the band has done from Deja
onward with additional tricks up its sleeve, but also because it just feels
like a final record. The entire weight of the band’s career rides upon it to the point where the eight-year wait and the final product cannot be meaningfully separated. “I want to put my hands to work until the work’s done / I want to open up my heart like the ocean,”
frontman Jesse Lacey sings on the dreary, hushed opening cut “Lit Me Up.” It’s a sentiment that continues through nearly all of the album: “Can’t Get It Out” provides its first glance of distortion with an otherwise straightforward, grungy rocker that again calls Lacey’s self-image forward: “I thought I was a creator / I’m here just hanging around / Got my messiah impression / I think I got it nailed down.”
Throughout the rest of the record, his doubt may surface in the form of direct reprises to Brand New's past material (“Take your head apart”)
or whole tracks about aging such as the stunning ballad “In The Water,” but it’s almost omnipresent, imploring of the audience to understand and empathize with the band’s own tribulations.
That is, it would be if there weren’t a handful of lyrical curveballs throughout the record's middle stretch; “137” breaks the album’s personal character for the first time, but it’s a stunner in spite of that, a haunting number about nuclear destruction whose uncompromising tactile imagery and searing guitar solo evoke dread to a degree that the band has never quite reached. “Desert” too feels like an outlier, a twangy, satirical display of bigotry that seems as if it’s always seconds away from exploding yet remains muted. “451” strikes a better middle ground; its lyrics are ambiguous enough to encourage broad interpretation while its steady, militant, Southern rock march rushes the listener towards the album’s finish line. The lack of evident subject correlations to the rest of the disc may pluck some out of Science Fiction
’s headspace, but it isn’t as if the band hasn’t overcome issues like this before; The Devil and God
’s back half is a topical hodgepodge, but that doesn’t stop many (myself admittedly included) from claiming the album as a whole a treasure, and this one doesn’t simply ask us to overlook those discrepancies, it makes striking musical highlights out of them.
That’s not to say that the quiet cuts here don’t pack a punch though: the rustic, stripped down, acoustic “Could Never Be Heaven” joins those aforementioned tracks as one of the band’s finest to date, tackling familiar themes of depression with the gut-wrenching twist of how it continues in spite of familial support. “Waste” is a bit noisier but another standout, a lumbering, ominous track that reads like Lacey’s desperate attempt to keep himself motivated after revisiting the same dark places on stage for years on end: “If it’s breaking your heart / If nothing is fun / Don’t lose hope, my son / This is the last one.”
And while here the repetition is spine-tingling and the track even begins with a voice demanding something along the lines of “scream into this,”
the actual last one, “Batter Up,” is eight minutes of wandering, bittersweet relief. Its hypnotic guitar lines ebb and flow as Lacey wonders what it will feel like to "shine between everything.” And I don’t blame him: as both one individual and the face of one of the 2000's greats, finding purpose outside his craft may not come easy, and he acknowledges that the clouds will never completely clear with one of the finest career-closers I've ever heard: "It's never going to stop / Batter up."
But here and now, the studio discography of Brand New supposedly does, and we can all share in the relief as well that though Science Fiction
isn’t necessarily flawless, it’s pretty much all anyone could ask for. From its heart-on-sleeve melodrama to its self-gratifying spoken clips that evade easy explanation, this album lays bare everything people love about Brand New while also bowing out with a delicate mix of progression and refinement. It’s a collection of songs made for us and them in equal measure, and all it asks of us is to listen and exhale in unison.
So gather around one last time for that wonderful and grand ol’ message.
I don’t know about you, but I doubt I’ll get tired of it.