(Illustration above by Ella Strickland de Souza)
I can't remember the first time I heard Brand New's album The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, but I do know when it connected. I was riding a bike through the woods next to my house, pedalling as hard as I could, reaching for a way to push the hours on the clock into movement. As I climbed toward the peak of a steep hill, lungs wheezing in and out of motion, the world expanded into the distance. Then the hideously beautiful bridge in "Limousine", the brief calm before the storm, and the lyric that may as well be inscribed on my forehead kicked in at once. "A beauty supreme, yeah, you were right about me. But can I get myself back from underneath this guilt that will crush me?"
I was fourteen years old at the time, the age where music becomes as much a part of your DNA as the nucleotides and the molecules and all the other biological parts that define who we are. At that point in life, the most angst-ridden pieces of music seemed to attach themselves to my body with the ease of a barnacle taking to a lonely, sad looking rock in the bottom of the ocean.
Yet, ten years later, on the month of its tenth anniversary, that moment and countless others on The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me continue to inform, confirm, and alleviate the darkest parts of who I am. It's a special record, one that is celebrated for being a watermark for mid-2000s emo, moving and advancing the genre far beyond anything that has come before or since, like Radiohead but for a different kind of sullen looking music fan. But I'm also convinced there's more to it than pushing the boundary of alternative music. It's a rare album: one that asks us to look into the most damaging part of our soul, and often comes up with more questions than answers.
For those unversed in the architectural history of Brand New, their first two albums were, for all intents and purposes, compliant with the aesthetic of the emo scene at the time. Their debut album, Your Favorite Weapon, is a tumultuous ride through what is essentially the back-pages of a heartbroken and needy teenager's LiveJournal page. The follow-up, Deja Entendu, expanded and darkened on these themes, but continued to be littered with the insignia of the genre: strong hooks, overtly long song titles, lyrics about being bored to death or wanting to believe in love. It's not that these albums aren't good; they're some of the more well written, poppier records from that era. But comparing them to The Devil and God Are Raging Inside of Me is like trying to catch smoke.
For a start, The Devil and God is one of the loudest records you'll ever hear. It's like a freight train colliding into your ribcage at full speed. But in these dark moments, it's also beautiful, as though it's strapped a nail gun to your head and pulled the trigger, only to let out a stream of light. Most emo bands write about death through the lens of a teenager who has become bored with suburbia and wants a way out. But The Devil and God is album that is literally born from the process of putting someone in the ground and leaving feelings underneath the soil and the never-ending search for respite that comes afterward.
Prior to writing the album, each band member faced illness and death in their family life. These themes are apparent across the album. "Jesus Christ, I'm not scared to die. I'm a little bit scared of what comes after. Do I get the gold chariot or do I float through the ceiling?" sings Jesse Lacey on "Jesus Christ". Inspired by a local news report, he wrote "Limousine" about a 7-year-old girl who was killed by a drunk driver hours after serving as a flower girl in her aunt's wedding. The result is eerie and haunting, closing with the lyric "We'll never have to buy adjacent plots of earth. We'll never have to rot together underneath dirt."
In a way, The Devil and God is a literal purge; a push to expel the sort of mature, yet dark feelings that continue to grow within us long after we let go of angst and become an adult, but also can't seem to shake extended flashes of harrowing despair. "I'm not your friend, I'm not your lover, I'm not your family", Lacey screams on one song, the piercing sound of his voice echoing the lonely emptiness of that statement. "A milestone around my neck. Be my breath, there's nothing I wouldn't give", he sings on another. Others are imbued with intense moments of grief, frustration, guilt and anger, but also the simultaneous outpouring of love that can accompany these feelings.
The record defies traditional song structure - a rare and bold move compared to the most popular emo bands of the time, who built their careers on teenage lyricism and anthemic choruses - with nearly half of the tracks clocking in at over five minutes long. Ultimately though, the biggest thematic of the album can be drawn from its title. The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, a nod toward bipolar disorder, but also the sickening, almost travel-sick feeling that comes from feeling bad but asking yourself to feel better. The artwork, an iconic image in certain circles, visually represents another feeling too: the sense that childlike innocence, or joy, could be broken by something looming around the corner. Death, maybe. Or a horrific mistake that will be grieved for the rest of life.
As a teenager, adolescence seems like a conveyor belt of first-after-first-after-first. First kiss; first break-up; first time taking drugs or throwing up on floor of a train; first death of a family member; first extended stay away from home; first argument that gets you kicked out of the house; first reconciliation. But the big, raw feelings behind these inaugural events never go away. Third break up, fifth death, a seemingly infinite amount of time spent doing drugs and falling asleep next to a pile of sick. These events repeat themselves, and as they do, the questions and answers grow. Life becomes scary. The chasm between dark and light grows vast. The danger of slipping between the crack poses a threat to your future.
It's these moments and the feelings within them that make Brand New's The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me a special album. Like a fine wine, it matures with age. By cutting to the core of the darkest elements of the human experience, never answering any questions, but presenting the feeling within them, it is a record that has the ability to grow with the listener, gaining more and more significance as life goes on. By pushing their scope, Brand New created a dark, intense and emotionally complex album. It's a record that pummels you, asks you to seek light at the end of tunnel, and it will be here forever.
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