The writing on the t-shirts was real: Brand New, one of the most transcendent rock bands of the new millennium are, for all intents and purposes, no longer with us. Please send flowers.To be fair, Jesse Lacey and company have been doing the danse macabre for most, if not all, of their 18-year lifespan, in the form of moribund lyrics and recurrent stylistic resets. At last, with the unexpected arrival of Science Fiction, Brand New’s fifth and final album, the quartet’s casket has been suddenly, spectacularly wheeled out on center stage.
The record marks the victorious resolution of to the band’s eight-year stint in creative purgatory—the record’s been shelved, teased, and delayed too many times to count–as well as an end-of-days for their rabid fanbase, a large contingency of which remain terrified to confront it. Their trepidation is understandable. The only thing scarier than the apocalypse is witnessing the demise of a band that played such a formative role in people’s lives, only to walk away unsatisfied. Fear not: A stunning, sprawling sucker-punch of a finale equally amenable to die-hards and newcomers, Science Fiction is a worthy (if bittersweet) send-off to one of the most brutally honest, forward-thinking rock bands of the new millennium.
Science Fiction is a nostalgia-steeped, emotionally draining record that’s pre-eminently obsessed with the family of skeletons who’ve spent the past 39 years camping out in Lacey’s head: mental illness (“Lit Me Up,” “Same Logic/Teeth”), Christian hypocrisy (“Desert”), artistic insecurity (“Can’t Get It Out,” “Out of Mana”), and above all, unabating existential dread (every fucking song). If you’ve cried to any of the band’s past albums, you’ll most certainly cry to this one too. As if to forewarn the coming anguish, the record opens with the crackling, dulcet voice of an anonymous patient, who reflects on her mental state after 400 hours of therapy, the balm for an unspecified trauma. She’s thoroughly appreciative, but unmistakably exhausted: “While I don’t mind having all this going on inside of me,” she sighs, “It’s sort of–I think I’m going to be relieved when it’s over, when I can sort of settle back down.”
This introduction is the first in a long string of metaphors for Lacey’s various death drives, and the cruel universe writ large. On the roiling “Out of Mana,” a gnarled post-hardcore barnstormer hearkening back to the Devil and God days, he envisions life as a video game, with death acting as the final boss: “Oh praise player one,” he declares sardonically, “Infinite lives/The time will come up.” Devastating opener “Lit Me Up,” meanwhile, explores trauma’s permanence through a naturalistic lens, all geothermic vents and abyssal seas. A few motifs, such as the forced aquatic puns on “Could Never Be Heaven” (“The whale is well-rehearsed / Swimming circles in the church / A Cardinalfish says, “God is dead”) and “145’s” awkward line about “playing Nagasaki,” undermine the record’s emotional gravitas, but his punches to the gut land nonetheless.
Science Fiction’s crown jewel is “In The Water,” a seven-minute slow-burner doubling as Brand New meta-commentary which easily stands as one of the band’s best songs. At long last, Lacey drops any and all pretense, a self-flagellatory portrait of the artist calling himself out on his own bullshit. “I can’t make it enough /Can’t fake it enough /I don’t want it enough /So everyone’ll wait,” he seethes, eventually conceding, “Can’t sing it enough/So I’ll find another way.” A surreal, fourth-wall-breaking retrospective of the band’s discography follows: first the spoken-word intro from the band’s last album, 2009’s Daisy, followed by a head-scratching sample of a man saying “Seven Years,” which repeats 10 times, call-backs to Devil and God’s “Limousine (MS Rebridge)” and Your Favorite Weapon’s “Seventy Times Seven,” respectively. Even if you’re not entirely familiar with the backstory, the character study proves fascinating–not to mention, it sounds absolutely gorgeous, the graceful love child of Red House Painters and Built to Spill.
Shortly after Science Fiction came out, a fellow Brand New obsessee passed along a relic from the band’s primordial period in the early aughts, just after they formed from the ashes of the Long Island scene surrounding them: a rare interview with Lacey filmed in 2001, before the band made their debut with Your Favorite Weapon. “Playing a bar in Bellmore [a small town on Long Island] in front of four people is a lot different than playing a larger venue with a stage, and a big sound system, and 600-700 kids there,” he observes, struggling to wrap his head around his band’s rise but nonetheless thrilled by the attention. “Hopefully, that’s gonna get even bigger,” Lacey muses, “Hopefully, we’ll be playing for thousands of kids.” Before long, he got what he wished for and more; Brand New didn’t just became a band, they became a lifeline and sanctuary for thousands upon thousands of messed-up kids.
But as we can see from Science Fiction–and by extension, its agonizing, near-decade gestation–making great art and shouldering everyone’s pain is fucking exhausting, and at some point, even the most creative, emotionally intelligent among us have to step back, accept that we’ve said all we had to say, and let the kids handle themselves. With Science Fiction, the separation anxiety got a hell of a lot easier–and we’ve got what is debatably the band’s greatest album to show for it.