Brand New played Kings Theatre in Brooklyn last night. I went because I thought it was probably my final first chance ever to see them: Between some t-shirt designs and cryptic statements, most fans of the unassailable Long Island emo punks are convinced that next year will be their last. Given the way a lot of people feel about this band, I expected airless desperation, possibly weeping.
It wasn’t like that. Why should it be? Years of lying low built them up, and right now Brand New are triumphant. Science Fiction, their first new album in seven years, has been hailed as perhaps their best. It notched an unexpected number-one debut this fall, the first independent album to do so in 2017. Their record presale sold out, and then their tour sold out, and this—Flatbush—is the closest they’ve come to a hometown show since.
The first sound was the same as the album: The weary opening monologue that opens “Lit Met Up,” echoing in space. The band took their places behind a massive, cage-like metal fence of LCD lights, similar to one Nine Inch Nails have used in years past. “Lit Me Up,” it occurred to me then, is industrial rock. The keyboards vanished when the song was over, but the tension hung. The curtain must rise, and during “Out of Mana” it did, sliding up to become an animated banner overhead. Somehow it was only half the height of the stage all along.
By the end of the evening, Brand New had played half of their new album—instant classic “Can’t Get It Out,” ’90s Modest Mouse-inspired “Same Logic/Teeth,” strident catastrophe blues “451”—interspersed with pieces of their previous three records. Thursday night’s setlist was much the same as those earlier this week in Detroit, Chicago, and Philadelphia, with the addition of Deja Entendu’s “Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t,” among the most self-referential entries in a throughly self-referenced catalog.
A 2017 Brand New performance is a concert, not a show. It is a drama without dialogue: a tortured protagonist in frontman Jesse Lacey, a guest star in touring guitarist and solo artist Kevin Devine, a euphoric performance by guitarist Vinnie Accardi providing welcome comic relief. It is a symphony of lighting design, flashing across multiple screens and a firefly swarm of clamp lights. The only figurative visuals come during “137,” Science Fiction’s dead-eyed yet strangely comforting vision of nuclear apocalypse. It alone is set to shaky footage of Cold War-era troops, as if its distant, scratchy vocal samples were coming in live over a hijacked frequency.
The encore was Lacey solo, playing “Soco Amaretto Lime,” the closing track from the band’s 2001 debut Your Favorite Weapon. It’s easy to look foolish when you are 39 years old and still singing about staying 18 forever, but it’s harder when a couple thousand people nursing increasingly distant memories of formative turmoil are singing it too. The audience took the refrain: “You’re just jealous ‘cause we’re young and in love.” Lacey sang it back to them one final time, then turned to go. As he walked offstage, I saw his face transformed. He spotted his toddler daughter running in from the wing, and swooped down to carry her home.