It takes a lot of skill for musicians to successfully abandon an established sound.
It takes a lot of skill for musicians to successfully abandon an established sound. Radiohead and Björk have deftly managed to accomplish this, compelling listeners to follow them in brand new sonic directions whenever they decide to try on a different face. Brand New accomplishes a similar feat. Beginning with the stately pop punk of 2001’s Your Favorite Weapon, they softened for more intricate songwriting on 2003’s Deja Entendu. By the time the band returned for 2006’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, frontman Jesse Lacey was a completely different songwriter. He went from “Have another drink and drive yourself home/ I hope there’s ice on all the roads” to “Was losing all my friends/ Was losing them to drinking and to driving” in that three years.
Science Fiction, the fifth and purportedly final Brand New album, has hooks, but they don’t grab you that hard on the first listen. These 12 tracks are spread out over a full hour, and the record feels like it makes every moment count without feeling like an hour-long album. The band never returns to their Your Favorite Weapon roots, but there are a couple songs that sound like the smarter older brothers of Deja Entendu’s self-aware depressive streaks. Many of the songs simply begin with guitar strumming, and there’s frequent clips of found recordings (leftovers from the sessions for 2009’s Daisy, naturally) that make the world feel a little less empty, but more alienating.
Opener “Lit Me Up” begins with a clip that alleges to have taken place at the end of extensive psychotherapy. A woman says, “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.” “Lit Me Up” is a lonely song, and Lacey seems resigned to the absence of others, to the point where his expressed yearning for others feels defeated: “I wanna open up my heart like the ocean,” he sings through manipulated vocals.
The album picks up a lot more from here. “Can’t Get It Out” is the closest we get to core Brand New here, with Lacey singing about his depression while throwing out lovely one-liners (“Got my messiah impression/ I think I got it nailed down”; “I’m just a manic-depressive toting around my own cloud”). There are some legitimate earworms on this album; “451” is blistering with it’s “The Beautiful People”-like drumbeat and skin-shredding chorus; “In the Water” and “Same Logic/Teeth” steal liberally from the Modest Mouse guitar playbook and hook themselves into your brain more easily this way. Even the somber refrain of “Could Never Be Heaven” sneaks up on you, begging you to sing it under your breath while doing dishes and buying groceries.
There are a few minor missteps: “No Control” wears thin with repeat listens, and the Nagasaki references on the otherwise fantastic “137” feel a little outdated. The acoustic closing section of “Out of Mana” deserves to be its own, much longer song. But overall, each song takes on a distinct personality. “Desert” showcases Lacey’s knack not just for commentary on the futility of religious zealotry, but on his ability to put himself inside of a character and help you to feel what they feel. “Waste” accomplishes the same task, giving us a glimpse into the downward spiral of a father and son, bound by drug abuse. The album concludes with the pensive “Batter Up,” with a message not of defeat, but of resignation: “It’s never gonna stop/ Batter up/ Give me your best shot.” He takes the tone of a man who has been given plenty of reasons to give up, but he’s willing himself to continue.
We’re probably never going to get another Brand New album, but it’s reassuring that Science Fiction is the way the band chose to go out. After 17 years of trying on new skin, it’s comforting to know that they managed, at long last, to find something that fits them this perfectly.