Brand New's 'Science Fiction' and the Terminal Dread of Being Alive
Please send flowers.
Artwork for 'Science Fiction'.
Brand New's Science Fiction—their fabled fifth album, and first in eight years—is a deeply unsettling listen. Initially, it's hard to tell whether that's because it swings violently between narratives about the authentic self and nuclear war, or because we hear Jesse Lacey's vocals crash, wrecking ball-like, through the line "I'm just a manic depressive" ten minutes into an album released in the year 2017.
The band have seen more than their fair share of people through turbulent times, tending to collect the vast majority of fans in the throes of adolescence and carrying them through from there. Considering how different each album sounds—from the wounded, cutting pop-punk of Your Favorite Weapon to the self-aware, sex-obsessed Deja Entendu; the desperate soul-searching of The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me to the abstract chaos of Daisy—it wouldn't have been surprising to see their fanbase splinter into factions defined by era, like those of Conor Oberst or Manic Street Preachers. But Brand New have continually reinvented themselves while fundamentally providing the same thing on each album—namely confirmation that, yeah, being alive is quite difficult if you think about it to any meaningful degree, and that undercurrent of dread which you feel most days is probably justified, and here are 50 minutes worth of relatable reasons why plus some new ones you hadn't even considered. That's what stops them from being lumped in with all your other favorite bands from back when you had snakebites and a fake ID.
Before we get into the meat of things, it's worth mentioning that Jesse Lacey has always been the kind to wear his influences on his sleeve. The man performs in front of a mic stand wrapped in flowers; make no mistake that he worships Morrissey. I once watched him have a go at a festival crowd for opting to watch Brand New instead of Explosions in the Sky, who were playing at the same time. Brand New named one of their lead singles after a famous quote from Rushmore, another after Audrey Tautou, another after a line from a fictional gangster film in Home Alone 2, and another after a short story written by a character in Stephen King's Secret Window, Secret Garden. "I Will Play My Game Beneath The Spin Light" borrows lines from "Chumming The Ocean" by Archers of Loaf, and several bootlegs of Jesse Lacey's solo sets have become cult essentials for containing covers of Jawbreaker's "Accident Prone," Built To Spill's "Car" and Neutral Milk Hotel's "Oh, Comely" or "Two-Headed Boy." The list of references goes on and on. Such direct nods were largely abandoned on Daisy and replaced by samples from reel-to-reel tapes that Jesse bought online from an estate site, leaving fewer dots for fans to connect on Reddit. So, it's both unsurprising and a welcome return to form that Science Fiction appears to be assembled on touchstones.
Ahead of it's release online, Science Fiction was mailed to everyone who preordered the vinyl, as a CD containing one long track called "44.5902N104.7146W"—the approximate coordinates for Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming (also the setting for Close Encounters of the Third Kind). It came with a booklet featuring quotes from the fictional Poole vs HAL 9000 chess match in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The number plate on the car in the cover art reads "SOS 666," while the photograph itself, shot by Swedish photographer Thobias Fäldt, originally appeared in a VICE fashion spread about intelligent textiles. The two girls jumping off the roof are wearing clothes designed to turn stiff in response to impact, making it much harder for them to get hurt.
There are two ways of reading this. You could go deep on Stanley Kubrick and try to connect his juxtaposition of imagery with Jesse Lacey's lyrical content in a Charlie_Kelly_At_Pinboard.jpeg approach to deconstruction. Or, you could set that aside and grab the common thread of dread and dissociation that runs through it all. Both have value; the title itself speaks to that. "Science Fiction" is a tangible element of pop culture. We know what to expect from science fiction, we're familiar with the concepts it deals with, we "get it"—hence the Close Encounters and Space Odyssey references. But it's also inherently oxymoronic. If you strip away the context, it says more about a disconnect between fact and perception, reality and the surreal, understanding and fabrication—things that are much harder to grapple with in a definitive way. If you go further down that path, Science Fiction becomes a question of perception. The cultural references extend branches to grab onto, but they don't root anything down. That's the point. The world may be made up of concrete things that exist—the people you know, the moon, a laccolithic butte composed of igneous rock in northeastern Wyoming—but the only reality is the one you make for yourself based on how you view them.
Science Fiction is interrupted by anonymous voices, reversed audio and isolated screams (presumably from the same tapes sampled on Daisy) that detach the whole thing from any recognizable environment and instead places it in a specific, discomposed sort of headspace. I'm rolling my own eyes at myself for saying this, but it's really not unlike what David Lynch is currently doing with Twin Peaks in that respect. It's a world constructed out of pre-existing pop culture that provides the comfort of humanity, and a lot of sonic weirdness that reflects how deeply terrified we are by things we can't identify—the main offender being things about ourselves.
It opens with a woman recounting a dream where she's at a conference-type function in a hotel. "I feel, almost, like there's too much going on," she says. She's introduced by a therapist as a patient who has just undergone over 400 hours of Intensive Individual Therapy—an outpatient program that offers an alternative to psychiatric hospitalization, typically to treat people with trauma-related disorders. We don't know anything about this woman besides the fact that she has suffered, and she is working to feel better. "I don't mind having all this going on inside of me," she says, the tape pricking and distorting, "I think I'm going to be relieved when it's over, and I can sort of settle back down." It's immediately followed by the opening lyric: "It's where you live, but you don't know how it's built."
Trauma can manifest in many ways: avoidance, anxiety, depersonalization, hallucinations, self-harm, dissociation. The lyrics allude to pretty much every single one as we hear from Jesse Lacey as well as various fictional narrators and real strangers (like the therapy patient) attempting to understand themselves by reconciling the internal and external forces around them. Some of those forces are a bit on the nose; it's impossible to ignore the political context of "137" and its playground-esque chant about nuclear war, but it's hardly a political song. It romanticizes an event in which we're all "vaporized" at once and nobody has to deal explicitly with loss. Equally, "In The Water" references each Brand New album—including the making of this one—in a swan song that writes anxiety, writer's block and expectation directly into the band's history before tethering it to tragedy. It ends with a line from Daisy's title-track, followed by the words "seven years" looped seven times in reference to "Limousine"—a track from The Devil and God about a girl called Katie Flynn who was killed in a car accident when she was seven years old. It's an odd callback to put at the end of a song that's ostensibly about Brand New's own career, but in the context of Science Fiction as a whole it feels symbolic of the endless and universal nature of pain as a significant part of the human experience.
Unsurprisingly there are multiple allusions to death and rebirth, but they feel much less linked to questions surrounding religion or the afterlife. Now, those allusions mostly appear within images of water or the body, which—while formless and temporary, respectively—are easier to hold on to than a belief system. This re-focus on the tangible makes sense when you consider that, for all the obvious external forces on the album that either make themselves apparent or offer themselves up for projection, it's the internal ones that feel most threatening. "Could Never Be Heaven" ends with audio of someone in a therapy session questioning, quite manically, the degree to which conditioning has influenced their beliefs and decisions. It's the voice of someone desperate to know who they really are, like it's the key to understanding why they have such a hard time existing and, maybe, if they had that understanding it wouldn't be so hard anymore. Of course, the more you interrogate yourself like that, the deeper you will fall into an existential hole where everything about yourself and the world splinters into infinite different timelines and you lose yourself among them. A different voice cuts in, saying, "You don't know how to break through this contradictory mess and really find your own authentic individuality," emphasising the word mess. The track that follows is generally about flawed human nature and specifically about someone trapped in a cycle of self-loathing and self-harm.
Brand New albums have a timelessness that's missing from those by most of the bands they came up alongside. After The Devil and God, a certain level of trust had been established that whatever they did next would be "right" even if nobody could be sure how it would sound. But as the years went silently by after Daisy—the distance between the band and their fans widening as both grew older, and possibly apart – doubt set in. There wasn't just the matter of whether a new album would ever materialise after they announced their impending breakup, printed a run of T-shirts that read 'Brand New 2000 – 2018' and then released several new Very American Rock songs that never went anywhere. There was the matter of whether Brand New would still be recognizable, or even relevant. A statement by the band later confirmed that a new album was coming, and would be their last. "What's left should be a strange demise, but hopefully one as loud and as fun as the rest of our time together has been," it concluded. "Please send flowers."
Science Fiction feels like a fitting ending, and parts with the same sort of advice an older sibling or a mentor might give to you before they fuck off to college or otherwise move on with their life. "Batter Up" reflects on the self-referential world that Brand New have built for themselves over the last 17 years and resigns itself to the fact that existing is just really bloody hard. Depending on what mood you're in, it could either feel like an inspirational mantra or the kind of depressing truth that knocks the wind out of you. It could either be, "Batter up! Give it your best shot!" to which you say: "Hell yeah, thanks Jesse, I will!" Or it could be, "I tried, someone else have a go," to which you take a deep breath and silently brace yourself.
I imagine it's the latter. If someone you may well have turned to over the years to do all your articulating for you couldn't make much progression in all this, then the fact that he is purposefully leaving you with the image of him offering you the bat to take your own swings in the dark is very bittersweet. We spend so much time clinging to the idea that things are moving towards some sort of logical conclusion, that there is forward momentum in all we do, but there is a quiet beauty in the fact that, for the most part, everything is cyclical and almost maddeningly simple. If you strip away all the hows, whys, wheres, and whats that we spend our time preoccupied with in hope that the answers will ascribe some concrete meaning to being alive, there's really nothing to do besides step outside and hope for the best. That's basically the gameplay, in a nutshell: you give it your best shot and then you die. If you're lucky, someone might send flowers.
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