Right before heading out on tour with Modest Mouse this summer, Brand New released new merchandise forecasting their demise: 2000-2018, their new T-shirts read. Eighteen forever — poetic, prescient, probably a little bit of bullshit. The band has always taken a tongue-in-cheek approach to their marketing — “mics are for singing not swinging,” anyone? — so it’s hard to take their self-mythologizing too seriously here, but it does seem like they could be getting ready to finally call it quits, something they’ve been threatening to do for years now. The band has been cleaning out their proverbial closet: making good on old promises, re-recording and officially releasing leaked demos in an attempt to solidify their legacy and back catalog. Two more years: That’s enough time for one last album, one last tour around the world. That makes sense. Maybe that even feels … right?
Jesse Lacey has, as always, been playing both sides. At one show in early June, he promised that, despite what the T-shirts may say, they weren’t finished quite yet: “We’re not breaking up,” he definitively said on stage in Vancouver after a muddled bit about being encouraged to play their new Your Favorite Weapon-era throwback single “I Am A Nightmare” because it’s their most popular song on Spotify. A few weeks later, he was ominously saying the exact opposite: “We’re done. Oh yeah, we’re done, and it makes nights like this all the more special so thanks for being here.” Like I said back when I wrote about their 10 best songs last year: It’s often frustrating to be a Brand New fan.
Last night during their headlining set at Madison Square Garden, he was as willfully obtuse and unclear as ever: “This was the best. This is the best,” he said at the end of the show. Was? Is? The answer lies somewhere in between: “We’re just not going to play for anyone else anymore, we’re just going to play for ourselves,” he also said at that show in Vancouver. So, yeah, that makes sense. Though Brand New have, on occasion, indulged their rabid fanbase — see 2013’s discography shows — they’ve always forged their own path, paying mind to the pressure and expectation but rarely subsumed by it.
I thought a lot about the band’s current status during the show, how they’re on the precipice of becoming a legacy act even as they’re still technically active. It’s been seven years since Daisy; their most revered album is coming up on its 10th anniversary. This was my third time seeing them in as many years, and the setlists have barely changed. The biggest adjustment on this tour is that they’ve done away with Your Favorite Weapon tracks entirely, which makes for a darker and more artistically minded show. That progression makes sense: They’ve always stood at an awkward impasse with their earlier work, which was very much a product of the time and teenage tumult in which it was created. Some of their most beloved songs are also some of their most cringeworthy, and if they are playing for themselves now, it surely makes sense to leave them behind.
But the disparity between what Brand New was and what Brand New is was starkly clear last night. The show at the Garden was a victory lap — the hometown heroes coming home to roost in an arena that they haven’t played since 2006 when they opened for Dashboard Confessional at the heart of the emo boom. Last night’s set was undeniably great — technically proficient, emotionally resonant, a gift for long-time fans. But it was also paint-by-numbers in a way that Brand New have rarely felt. Even as they’re in the midst of their most active period in a long while — two new songs in two years, a steady stream of reworked demos over the last few months — I wonder how much the promise of an album looming can shake up the band’s status quo. They seem set in their ways, still deriving joy from the music but maybe becoming a little too comfortable in that familiarity. Their set was pitch-perfect, but what were the stakes?
There will always be the same high-water marks at Brand New shows: The entire crowd shouting back the words to “Okay I Believe You But My Tommy Gun Don’t” at the stage is powerful and intoxicating. Everyone in the audience holding up their cellphone flashlights as Lacey did “Play Crack The Sky” during the encore literally made me sob. Watching them run through the extended emotional release of “Limousine” will forever be one of my favorite songs to see performed live. But those highlights all seem so tied to the past, not part of a band that theoretically should be constantly developing.
So maybe two years is exactly the right amount of time to call it quits before it becomes too repetitive. Put out that long-awaited fifth album to inject some fresh blood into their sets with new material, relish in getting to be able to play for fawning crowds for one last time. Get out before it stops being fun for either side of the stage. Maybe the band senses that this is where it’s all headed. 2000-2018: A joke, sure, but that’s also a pretty great run. And when they inevitably reunite for Coachella 10 years down the line, they can have new T-shirts printed up to irreverently announce their resurrection. I’ll definitely be there.
“Sic Transit Gloria… Glory Fades”
“Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t”
“The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot”
“Limousine (MS Rebridge)”
“At The Bottom”
“Play Crack The Sky”
“The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows”
“You Won’t Know”