Premature Evaluation: Brand New Science Fiction
Let’s just take a second to marvel at the fact that, after eight years, having a new Brand New album out in the world feels like nothing short of a small miracle. There were times when it felt like this day might never come and other times when it felt like it was right around the corner, but it’s finally actually here. A couple years ago, I wrote about how being a fan of this band could be a frustrating, punishing exercise — one of delayed release dates and long radio silences and some perceived animosity toward the people tracking their every move — but, in retrospect, the past few years have proven to be pretty swell when all’s said and done. And if this is truly gearing up to be the end of Brand New’s narrative — and they’ve been increasingly hinting that’ll be the case, though who knows with this band — I can’t think of a better way to go out.
The fervor around the quick-paced release of their long-awaited fifth album, Science Fiction, is a testament to not only how popular and beloved they’ve remained over the years, but how willing fans are to forgive any frustrations they had with the band because, at the end of the day, Brand New always deliver. After listening to it all weekend, I’m confident that Science Fiction will stand with their best. It’s dense and rewarding and totally overwhelming in the same way their past output is, in that I can imagine myself discovering new things to love about it 10 years down the line. It truly feels like a culmination of what they’ve been working toward their entire career, both musically and emotionally.
On a macro level, Science Fiction is a total crowdpleaser. They really went for broke, cracking the Brand New formula wide open and finessing what makes them work so well together. Everything sounds like a refinement or progression of the same playbook that they’ve been working with for almost 18 years now. There are a lot of allusions, both sonically and lyrically, to past albums, and you could play “spot the similarities” with each of the songs all day, but I think what’s most refreshing about Science Fiction is that it feels like there’s no barrier for entry. It’s an album I could give to just about anyone that likes rock music with no qualifiers. Maybe that’s just because it’s so new and hasn’t had a chance to have a mythology constructed around it yet, but Science Fiction seems accessible in a way that listeners who haven’t been heavily invested in this band for two decades can appreciate.
And I think part of the reason for that is that Science Fiction is just so damn fun to listen to. Not that it’s a fun album by any means — it’s about as dark as any other Brand New album — but there are just so many downright cool moments on it, stuff that feels thrilling as a fan and exciting as a listener. Take the abrupt transition from “Same Logic”‘s heavy breakdown — notably, the first time Jesse Lacey really screams on the album (five tracks in!) — to the sharp and acerbic coda “Teeth.” It’s a jarring change that echoes similar transitions on past songs, but where a switch-up like that would have been well-choreographed in a previous iteration of the band, they’re confident enough now in their skills that they can careen from towering heights to a dropout in a matter of seconds. It’s the first moment in a Brand New song I could say was maybe a little inspired by ’90s R&B? Wild. But Science Fiction as a whole is a lot more fluid and musically playful than its predecessors. The sonic variation here — from song to song or even within the same song — is indicative of a band that’s having a good time testing out how far they can pull each other in any given direction.
Effectively corralling the band’s wide-ranging swells and twists has always been a responsibility laid at the feet of their longtime producer (and honorary fifth member) Mike Sapone, and Science Fiction sounds like it was toiled over in the studio. Around this time last year, Brand New said that they were delaying the forecasted release of their fifth LP because they considered that what they had was “not complete enough, refined enough, or edited thoroughly enough to be something we would call finished or essential.” I’d imagine a lot of that extra time was spent fine-tuning the more difficult moments.
Across the board, Brand New are using their instruments in more interesting and dynamic ways than they ever have before on Science Fiction, and being able to highlight those special moments without making them feel like showboating is the mark of a great producer. On previous albums, it often felt like Brand New were operating in tandem like one giant, hulking beast — and that imposing fury was part of their appeal — but Science Fiction allows for more personality in a more cohesive way. The chainsaw guitars on “137”‘s climax, “451”‘s bluesy incendiary swagger, or “Out Of Mana”‘s whiplashing solo are all flashy moves, but they feel well-plotted and fully integrated into driving the album forward.
There’s also more downtime on Science Fiction than any other Brand New album. The use of acoustic guitar is more pronounced in a way that helps provide a reprieve from the band’s heavier moments. More than half the songs on the album start off with strumming and build from there; one highlight, “Could Never Be Heaven,” never lets up from that mode. Science Fiction is stitched together with ambient interludes and eerie samples that make for a surreal listening experience. There are more outside voices present on this album than ever before — creepy dispatches that sound like they’re being transmitted from the beyond — but rather than help open up the album, they only serve as echoes of the fears that have always permeated Brand New’s songwriting.
Lyrically, Jesse Lacey and the rest of the band are preoccupied with the same things that have plagued them for decades now: faith, hard work, self-annihilation, alienation. After all these years, they’re still writing songs about feeling like an outsider, a sensation that doesn’t seem to go away when you get older. In fact, over time, that separation from the rest of society only gets deeper and more profound, makes you feel more and more alien. “Lit Me Up,” the first song on the album — which creaks and squeaks to life like old machinery — is about feeling all-consumed by this otherness: “It lit me up like a rag soaked in gasoline/ In the neck of a bottle breaking right at my feet/ It lit me up and I burn from the inside out.” The chorus to “137” is one of the band’s best pieces of fatalistic prose: “Let’s all go play Nagasaki/ We can all get vaporized/ Hold my hand, let’s turn to ash/ I’ll see you on the other side.” It invokes the Biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (also nodded at on “No Control”: “Holding the mic to this pillar of salt/ She won’t see anything at all”) through a reference to a tragedy much more painful and recent. It’s a bold choice, but Lacey has always written with a fire-and-brimstone sense of determination in terms of how hopeless it can all feel sometimes. The final song on the album acts as a darkly comic egg-on to life’s onslaught: “It’s never going to stop/ Batter up/ Give me your best shot.”
That’s not to say that there’s no emotional progression from their past work. Lacey’s songwriting is less opaque on Science Fiction than ever before. It’s also a lot more mature (for the most part — there are, admittedly, a handful of clunky lines) and rooted in appreciating what you’ve got. “My daughter’s shoulders are my shoulders/ My son’s hands, my hands/ My wife’s heart, my own heart,” he sings on “Could Never Be Heaven,” the closest thing to a love song on the album. The coda tacked onto “Out Of Mana” reaches similarly sentimental heights: “I want to say I’m in love with you/ And I’m more than the skin of my teeth/ I digress, I’m a mess, I’m in love with you/ I will go without water or sleep.”
Their transparency is most evident on “Can’t Get It Out,” a song that actually reminds me a lot of the the sort of radical openness about mental health that characterizes revival-wave emo bands like Modern Baseball (who Brand New toured with) and Sorority Noise (whose most recent album was also produced by Sapone). Lacey has always tackled his demons in his songs, but never has he so bluntly addressed them by name. The chorus to this song feels like a breakthrough: “Not just a manic depressive/ Toting around my own crown/ I’ve got a positive message/ Sometimes I can’t get it out.” It presents a self-awareness that feels like fresh territory for the band, something that’s echoed on songs like “Same Logic,” which recognizes the repetitive self-destructive behaviors that lead to the same situation over and over again, and “Waste,” which offers a simple but powerful message of encouragement: “You are not alone.” The title of the album, Science Fiction, feels like it’s acknowledging the ways we put up fronts, self-deceive, create versions of ourselves that appear OK to the outside world.
As with any Brand New album, Science Fiction feels like the sort of work that’ll take a long time to sink in and deconstruct. The band knows that its fans will obsessively pore over every single second of whatever they put out, and they’ve provided a lot here to pick apart for years to come — maybe even forever if it proves to be their final album. From religious allegories to allusions to past material to the unidentified samples that hold everything together, Science Fiction seems like the sort of thing that, as a diehard fan, I’ll be scratching the surface of for a very long time. But it’s also an album that’s viscerally exciting, that reminds you of the immense power of this band when they’re firing on all cylinders. It’s enough to solidify Brand New’s legacy as one of the all-time great rock bands of the 21st century. And if it does end up being their curtain call, it’s been a wild ride and Science Fiction is one hell of a way to say goodbye.
Science Fiction is out now via Procrastinate! Music Traitors.