Being a diehard Brand New fan is a frustrating, often punishing exercise. In the 15 years since their arrival, they’ve been a hard band to try to follow to the ends of the Earth. With long periods of radio silence during the interminable waits between albums, their tendency to shrug off the fame and goodwill they’ve built up, and stylistic pivots seemingly designed to alienate as many people as possible, it hasn’t been an easy ride. But if you’ve stuck with it, it has been an overwhelmingly rewarding experience. They are a band that is just as angry, insular, and unpredictable as their music and, for better or for worse, they will always occupy a special place in my heart.
But there was a time in my life when I was ashamed to admit that I was a Brand New fan. For a couple of years during the transition from high school to college, I placed too much weight on the meaningless idea of “indie” music, and I felt that Brand New were so far outside of that arena — and so intrinsically attached to my adolescence — that I rejected them in favor of what was new and fresh. That attitude isn’t exclusively mine. In the conversations I’ve had with Brand New fans in the indie rock scene, they all seem to have gone through a similar transition. The band felt like a vestige of the emo and pop-punk scenes that most of my generation grew up with, and because most of that music hasn’t aged well, it felt like an embarrassment to acknowledge. You can even see this reflected in the coverage Brand New have received over the years. We’ve never written about them until recently, and much of the blogosphere either ignored them altogether or lost track of them somewhere along the way. I’ve since gotten over that dismissive attitude, and it seems like the tides are changing and a critical reappraisal for the band is on the horizon.
The reality is that Brand New were never really an “emo” band, even though they were shepherded and pigeonholed into that scene. They grew up in and came out of the brute strength of Long Island hardcore. Frontman Jesse Lacey, drummer Brian Lane, and bassist Garret Tierney all emerged from the ashes of the Rookie Lot, a band that had some local success in the late ’90s but would pale in comparison with what was to come. In 2000, the three of them brought in Vincent Accardi to play guitar and formed what would become the core of Brand New. One of the remarkable (and great) things about the band is that their lineup stayed constant throughout — for a period, Lacey’s cousin Derrick Sherman joined the band on tour, and producer Mike Sapone is cited as an important influence on the band and often called an additional member, but the charm of Brand New comes down to the tight bond these four guys have built up over the years.
The closest that Brand New ever came to the pop-punk that they would long be associated with was on Your Favorite Weapon, their charming, angry, and occasionally messy debut album. Despite their deepest protestations, YFW is very high school, but that’s part of what makes it so awesome. Lacey writes and sings with a sharp-tongued wit, crafting purposefully overwrought and emotionally heightened songs that capture the life-or-death, do-or-die stakes of young love, constantly shifting self-worth, and suburban ennui. Pretty typical stuff for a punk band, but Brand New spent their next three albums proving that they were aiming for something more ambitious. Because even while they fronted as Jimmy Eat World and Blink-182 acolytes, they were name-checking the Smiths and Morrissey (whom Lacey cribs from early and often), and singing the praises of Neutral Milk Hotel, Modest Mouse, and Built To Spill. They were sending up the whole scene with a knowing, winking nod, but no one really picked up on that at first. Instead, Brand New were stuck on the Warped Tour circuit for years to come, even while their music ran laps around the other bands in the same boat. (This is as good a place as any to mention their long-standing and well-documented feud with Taking Back Sunday, which also played a hand in how Brand New were characterized by the press.)
Things started to change with the band’s sophomore album, Déjà Entendu, at least musically. Written in the two years that they toured in support of YFW, Déjà represents Brand New’s first steps toward a more mature sound. Lacey drifted away from writing solely about girls and adolescence, and started to confront his deep-seated fears of growing old, his anxiety over being famous, and his penchant for drinking and fucking and acting self-destructive. From the first aching notes of “Tatou,” it’s obvious that the album is more carefully considered and cohesive than its predecessor. It’s sprawling in a way that Your Favorite Weapon never was, opting for drawn-out narratives like “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot” and “Me Vs. Maradona Vs. Elvis,” songs that build up gradually and have a sense of history, a far cry from the hook-based songwriting they got their start on. There are still leftovers from that here — mainly on the front half with “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” and “I Will Play My Game Beneath The Spin Light” as the crown exemplars — but Déjà saw the band transitioning to the massive emotional centerpieces that would become a constant presence on their next two records.
The Déjà period also marked the band’s first flirtation with mainstream success. My first experience with Brand New was around this time, when someone threw “Sic Transit Gloria … Glory Fades” onto a mix CD, a track that resonated mainly because we were all going through puberty and were horny, and it talked about sex in an upfront, slightly juvenile manner that was appealing and seemed beyond our years. They would headline festivals on this record, make their late-night TV debut, and crack the Billboard charts. The band was now a success, but with their newfound popularity came high expectations and a lot of scrutiny, things with which Lacey and the band would struggle.
But even before that groundswell of support, the band knew they wanted to shake things up. At a Déjà Entendu listening party that hilariously took place at a Chili’s on Long Island, Vincent Accardi was already looking forward: “There’s no point in writing the same record. You need to develop, you need to grow up. […] Whatever we feel like writing, and whatever makes us happy is what you guys are gonna get. And whether or not you guys like it is another story, but we’re not going to put out something to fucking make dollars. We’re going to put out something to make us all feel good.” Even at this early stage, they were uncompromising in their desire to buck expectations, just hoping their fans would follow along.
After a year or so of non-stop touring followed by some well-deserved time off, they finally began to record their follow-up at the end of 2005. In the meantime, they had signed to a major label (Dreamworks, which was later bought by Interscope), and started to work with a new producer, whom they soon dropped in favor of Mike Sapone, someone they had worked with closely on their first two records. And then, something happened that Brand New legends are made of: At the start of 2006, nine unfinished demos from their studio sessions leaked online. For a band that took comfort in secrecy and shied away from the spotlight, this was a major blow. In an interview after the fact, the band detailed how they felt about the situation:
LACEY: It had me pretty down for a while. No one likes to show their creation in mid-process, and those songs weren’t done. They were like blueprints. Just the plan, right? It put me in a state where I was under the impression that those songs had been wasted or something — that we had to go and write new things because those had been heard. Now, in retrospect, I want those songs to be on the album and many of them aren’t, and I’m probably more to blame for that than anyone. This record already feels incomplete to me without those tracks and probably will forever.
Thankfully, the seams of the missing demos don’t show on The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me. It is arguably their magnum opus, their flawless masterpiece. Everything that Brand New had been working on and tirelessly perfecting up to that point coalesced into a knotty, aggressive, transcendently beautiful record. This is the band’s exorcism, an epic and biblical battle between the forces of good and evil. Devil And God is the venting of all of their frustrations — with the world and with themselves. It tackles their doubts about faith, their anger at death and life and the liminal, possibly meaningless space in between. It is an oppressively dark record, a journey into a forest that hasn’t been touched by sunlight in many years. It is a black hole where the deepest recesses of the soul are excised. The entire record represents a cathartic journey: You enter with the wails of “Sowing Season” and come out on the other side with the lilting strings of “Handcuffs” a different person. Devil And God marked a cultural shift, one that catapulted Brand New into the upper echelons of royalty in a scene that had already started to solidify around Déjà.
Lacey has said that Devil And God was the record that saved Brand New, that proved that the band was in it for the long haul, even if it took them forever to get there. Their next record, Daisy, arrived in 2009, and it’s by far their densest album to date, one that takes a long time to really get a hold on. Even the band admits that the record has its share of problems:
I think we physically were feeling very uncomfortable, and creatively we were feeling uncomfortable, we felt a certain commotion in our lives that we found very bothersome, and we wanted to express that in that record. The problem was that when we were done with it, it was a lot more chaotic than we thought it was, we laugh about it now, just how tiring that record is to listen to, it’s exhausting.
I was initially dismissive of Daisy when it first came out, but I’ve since come around. It descends even further down into the smoky oblivion that hung over Devil And God, pulling heavily from the hardcore scene that bred them, and the result is a heavy, oftentimes difficult record. The highs aren’t as high as what they’d done before, but there is a lot to like about the record, and it clears the plate for whatever will come next.
As I write this, we’re in the most active period for Brand New in the last six years. They’ve just released their first single, “Mene,” a song that could have easily been the lead single to a hypothetical Déjà Entendu or Devil And God followup, and they’ve been unveiling new material live and teasing out an eventual full-length release. They seem to be backtracking and going down the path not taken, exploring sonic territory that they could have veered into after either of those albums. Daisy was the end of a road, and now they must U-turn and go down another.
No matter what comes next, Brand New have built up a respectable legacy, one that will live on for a long while. Watching the band grow over the past decade has been a life-changing journey. Each album charts their maturation acutely — Your Favorite Weapon is the bratty teen years, Déjà the mood-swinging, tumultuous early 20s; adulthood sets in on Devil And Good, and mortality looms with Daisy. For those that grew up alongside Brand New, each era has a distinctive clarity to it that makes revisiting the records feel like reliving those periods in your life. That’s a remarkable quality for a band to have, one that shows they aren’t afraid to change as they grow older and their circumstances shift. “We’ve been in a band with each other for 12 years, and we love each other more than we ever have at this point, and connect and understand each other more, and every day that continues is a massive accomplishment to us,” Lacey said in a 2012 interview. It is, in some ways, unprecedented in terms of a lot of the other people, and bands, that we know. It’s really satisfying.” Above all, the bond shared by the band keeps them going.
Before we dive into this list, a quick housekeeping note: I’ve decided to leave the unreleased demos out of this ranking for a few reasons. Selfishly, it made it just a little bit easier to narrow down Brand New’s absurdly strong discography into just 10 songs. But, more importantly, it’s because Brand New are such hardcore perfectionists at heart that it feels disingenuous to include what basically amount to sketches of songs, even though they undoubtedly contain some of their best-written and most affecting work. So here’s a special shoutout to them: “Fork And Knife” and “aloC-acoC” — which, yes, I’m aware saw an official release as a B-side — and the unimpeachable “Cleanser.”
Let’s get started.
10. “Gasoline” (from Daisy, 2009)
One of the biggest changes on Daisy is that Vincent Accardi stepped up and started to carry more of the burden. Brand New have always operated as a collaborative unit, but Daisy is the first time that Accardi and Lacey are evenly matched in their lyrical contributions. Accardi is a more straightforward writer than Lacey is, but they occupy much of the same headspace, probably a side effect of operating as a unit for more than a decade. Both of them are preoccupied with faith and doubt, and with feeling like the odds are stacked against them. On “Gasoline,” Accardi laments that you can’t stop something once the ball has started rolling. Like putting toothpaste back in the tube or “trying to hold smoke” or attempting to douse a fire by using gasoline — all impossibilities, and the frustration reigns over the song and Daisy as a whole. It is anxious, angry that you can never go back and do something over. You have to live with the choices you’ve made. Brace for impact: “It feels like I’m jumping towards the train.”
09. “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” (from Déjà Entendu, 2003)
“The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” will probably end up being Brand New’s most enduring contribution to the mainstream. To date, it’s their only single outside of “Jesus” that made headway on the Billboard rock charts, and the track served as the poster child for an album that spent 26 weeks on the Top 200 album chart. If you hung around the right crowd, it was damn near inescapable during its reign, and it’s come to represent all the best qualities of that era of alternative rock. (It even has an appropriately melodramatic video to go along with it.) If it were the only Brand New song you’d ever heard, you would have a lot different impression of the band than what they actually were, and it would probably be a lot easier to sweep them under the rug as just another emo band. It was iconic in its own way, separate from the vulnerable screeds that marked the rest of Deja. The chorus hits hard, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. And the lyrics are clever, but not among the band’s best. It explores territory that Brand New would cover a few times over, running through unspoken cracks that form in a relationship over time which end up eating away at it like a cancer. There’s affairs (“reports of lover’s trysts”) and passive-aggressive love notes (“wasting words on lowercases and capitals”) and the looming threat of everything messily bubbling over (“Today’s the day it gets tired/ Today’s the day we drop down”). It’s the song you throw on at a party when you’re not really sure if everyone around you knows Brand New back-to-front, and that makes it an essential part of their oeuvre.
08. “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot” (from Déjà Entendu, 2003)
If “Quiet Things” is the calm before the storm, then “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot” is the cleanup crew. Lacey is in full self-loathing straight-white-dude mode here, but it never comes across as cloying or dishonest. He never really falls into that trap somehow, probably based on the strength of his lyrics; they allow for gray areas and nuance in a way that a lot of these kinds of songs don’t. “Boy Who Blocked” steals its title construction from a Morrissey track, who explores relationships in much the same way. It’s about the insidious power of memory, where the most painful moment in a relationship isn’t the fight itself but the tossing and turning you do in your bed afterward. “It’s cold as a tomb, and it’s dark in your room/ When I sneak to your bed to pour salt in your wounds.” Lacey’s also at his most flowery and poetic here — look at this kicker: “You are calm and reposed, let your beauty unfold/ Pale white like the skin stretched over your bones.” We’re all failures by design, and hopefully time will smooth over our irregular shapes.
07. “Soco Amaretto Lime” (from Your Favorite Weapon, 2001)
As its aged, “Soco Amaretto Lime” has taken on a different meaning, an almost mythic quality that drags you back to a specific time and place. It’s the most nostalgic that Brand New have ever been — they’re usually more about wallowing in history than repeating it. But this is no longer the song of a teenager living through the moment; it’s of an adult looking back and imagining how free it must have been, even if it was never really that free at all. It’s full of exaggerations: “We’ll never miss a party ’cause we keep them going constantly/ And we’ll never have to listen to anyone about anything.” And when Lacey sings that he wants to stay 18 forever, it’s a dream that’s dead as soon as he says it out loud. We want to latch onto youth and all the simplicity that comes with it, but we forget about the constriction that comes with growing up in suburban sprawl. “We’re the coolest kids and we take what we can get … the hell out of this town.” There’s always going to be a magnetism to where you grew up. It was simpler back then, right? When you were just drinking on the parkway overpass and didn’t have to pay the bills or work at a dead-end job? Or is that all just nostalgia? “You’re just jealous ’cause we’re young and in love,” it ends. Your Favorite Weapon did a good job in exploring the tumultuous nature of young love, and the footnote to the whole album is: Damn, maybe it was all worth it. It probably was. The record scratches at the end, cutting off such a naive thought. It’s just the end of a cycle, time to move on.
06. “The Archers Bows Have Broken” (from The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me, 2006)
I’ll go to bat for “Archers” as the catchiest, most anthemic song Brand New have ever made, tucked away at the end of Devil And God as a respite from all the anguish and tension that built up over the course of the record. The song first showed up as a more ambient, less driving version on the Fight Off Your Demons leak, jokingly called “The Edge Takes Over For Vin” as a nod to the U2-esque power riff. The lyrics are also completely different, still mulling over the same interpersonal connections that marked Deja. The fact that the song changed so drastically from conception to execution demonstrates how finely tuned every Brand New song is, and the new lyrics tie themselves into the themes of the album as a whole. “Archers” is a screed against the hypocrisy of organized religion — “you’re beating with a book everyone that the book tells you to love” — that questions the very nature of evangelicalism. “What did you learn tonight?” they ask of some unknown sermon. “You’re shouting so loud, you barely joyous, broken thing.” As Brand New see it, religion is so preoccupied with forcing people to adhere to the orthodoxy that the believers are missing out on the beauty of a world where everyone follows their own path. “You can only blame yourself, it’s what I say,” they tie things off. Maybe all of the negativity of the world has a source, and you have to look inward to find it.
5. “Jesus” (from The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me, 2006)
Am I good enough? Maybe I’m cynical, but a big part of Christianity seems to be about being able to answer that question in the affirmative, to make sure that you measure up. Because when (or if) Judgement Day comes, we all want to be saved. This is Jesse Lacey’s plea with Jesus — for salvation, for redemption, for forgiveness. He wants to know that, when he dies, he won’t be condemned. “Jesus Christ, I’m not scared to die/ But I’m a little bit scared of what comes after. Do I get the gold chariot, or do I float through the ceiling?” It’s the crux that all of the doubt and conflict on Devil And God, a reckoning with the Father that seeks approval despite all of the darkness inside. Judgement is upon us — “I know you’re coming for people like me/ But we all got wood and nails, and we turn out hate in factories” — but am I really worse off than the rest of society? Isn’t there something inside of me that can be saved?
4. “Seventy Times 7″ (from Your Favorite Weapon, 2001)
Brand New’s most vicious song isn’t about a girl, but rather the well-documented deterioration of a friendship. Sure, it’s one that ended over a girl, but all this vitriol is hurled squarely at Taking Back Sunday’s John Nolan. Friendships are the messiest breakups. We’re almost conditioned to expect heartbreak in a romantic relationship, but the breakdown of a friendship can blindside you. Here’s this person that you spent so much time with and trusted, and then they turn around and completely fuck you over. Or at least that’s how the song sees it — the actual situation is always messier, but Lacey doesn’t leave much room for self-doubt here. But sometimes that kind of pig-headed brutality is needed to move past something. Lacey spits serious venom here: “‘Cause I’ve seen more spine on a jellyfish/ I’ve seen more guts on 11-year-old kids/ Have another drink and drive yourself home/ I hope there’s ice on all the roads/ And you can think of me when you forget your seatbelt/ And again when your head goes through the windshield.” It’s the bridge that launched a thousand bitter AIM away messages, the proto-subtweet that summed up the blind fury caused by a friendship ending. There’s no room for reflection here, and there’s certainly no tact. But it sure is cathartic to hear someone call out a person on such a massive scale. “Everything’s caught on to everything you do,” twisting the knife in the way only a best friend could.
3. “Sowing Season (Yeah)” (from The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me , 2006)
“Sowing Season” sets up Devil And God on a different field than the ones Brand New were playing on before. It’s all there in the first few lines, which map out the journey of the rest of the album: “[I] was losing all my friends, but I got them back/ I am on the mend, at least now I can say that I am trying/ And I hope you will forget things I still lack.” This is a road to redemption, a search for absolution from God and from the people around the song’s narrator. The titular sowing season is a barren wasteland, but there is hope for growth. “Time to get the seeds in the cold ground/ It takes a while to grow anything.” It builds off of Galatians 6:7: “For whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” If you do bad things, expect bad results; but the opposite can also be true. The impetus is on you to change your fate. “Nothing gets so bad a whisper from a father couldn’t fix it.” We are all capable of being redeemed, but it’s on us to seek that out.
2. “Okay I Believe You But My Tommy Gun Don’t” (from Déjà Entendu, 2003)
Behold, Jesse Lacey as id. “Okay I Believe You But My Tommy Gun Don’t” is perhaps the epitome of rock music braggadocio, a song that builds Brand New to mythic proportions. “I hope this song starts a craze/ The kind of song that ignites the airwaves,” they presciently predict. “The kind of song that makes people glad to be where they are with whoever they’re there with.” It’s not often that rock music positions itself at the head of the pack — it’s usually relegated to underdog status, a state that Brand New is all too familiar with. But for five glorious minutes, Lacey builds himself up as king, and cleverly navigates the pitfalls and benefits of having all eyes on him: “These are the words you wish you wrote down/ This is the way you wish your voice sounds/ Handsome and smart/ Oh, my tongue’s the only muscle on my body that works harder than my heart.” But it’s not a Brand New song without nagging self-doubt. They know they’re posturing: “Ask me what it’s like to have myself so figured out, I wish I knew,” Lacey admits in the first verse. And they demonstrate how anyone who has this much of an ego will eventually tear apart at the seams. “This is the price you pay for loss of control,” and soon thereafter: “This is the reason you’re alone/ This is the rise and the fall.” Burn bright, burn out fast. Brand New were never really on top, but at least for a few minutes they could pretend they were contenders.
1. “Limousine (MS Rebridge)” (from The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me, 2006)
The most powerful music is born out of immense tragedy. Case in point: Devil And God’s stunning centerpiece “Limousine” was written about the death of Katie Flynn, a 7-year-old Long Island girl who was killed in a drunk driving crash just hours after serving as the flower girl in her aunt’s wedding. The story is the stuff of nightmares: “As I crawled out of the car, the only thing that was left of Kate was her head,” her mother recounted in a press conference just days after the fact. Lacey was deeply affected by this, and he wrote this magnificent, heartbreaking song in an effort to cope with the loss. It is a masterpiece.
Each verse takes on a different perspective. The first is the mother, addressing her daughter directly. “K, here’s your ride — get your pedals out and lay them in the aisle.” She then sets the scene: “He’s drinking up, he’s all-American, and he’ll drive. He’s volunteered with grace to end your life.” She resigns herself to the loss: “You’re a big surprise, and I’ve one more night to be your mother.” The song abruptly changes focus, now to the mind of the murderer, as a guitar squeak signals a tempo switch: “Yeah, you were right about me. But can I get myself out from underneath this guilt that will crush me?” And then the bridge kicks in. Apparently, the repetition of the bridge can be attributed to long-time producer and friend Mike Sapone, hence the “MS Rebridge” part of the title. It’s counted out seven times, one for each year of Katie’s life: “I love you so much, but do me a favor baby and don’t reply. ‘Cause I can dish it out, but I can’t take it.” The track builds into a stinging, bloody fury as the anger mounts and mounts. And then it dissipates.
“Limousine” gets to the heart of what Brand New are about: If God exists, how can He allow such suffering? And is it possible to move on, to forgive in the face of such insurmountable horror? The answer is no, probably. The grim reaper is around every corner. The album art for Devil And God depicts this — here are two shrouded figures, whispering to each other and waiting to pounce on innocence. The world is not a good place, we are not inherently good people. There is evil in all of us, ripping us to shreds.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify.