Understanding my love for The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me (the album name was based on the troubled singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston and the well-known psychological problems he faced/s) might be a little clearer when studied in the larger Brand New context. It’s also going to be a bit of a journey so hang with me. When I was in college, emo was all the rage. Now, one of the most criminal misnomers in all of music was labeling things emo that didn’t truly represent emo. There was, I assure you, some genuine emo music out there that sounds nothing like the bands that get labeled emo today. So, Brand New was pretty emo. Their first record, Your Favorite Weapon, contained all of the usual elements – pithy song titles (“Jude Law and a Semester Abroad”), “woe is me” pity songs, and “girls are evil” revenge songs – that you would come to expect from a run-of-the-mill emo band. However, there was something different buried beneath Brand New’s banal sound: the lyrics. Frontman Jesse Lacey and guitar player Vin Acardi (the latter who had a much reduced role until The Devil and God…but more on that later) weren’t content with being run-of-the-mill, so they peppered their songs with some honest lyrics that made the ho-hum sound of the songs stand out because you wanted to belt out these odd words.
After Your Favorite Weapon put Brand New on the map, they began work on their second album, Deja Entendu. Deja Entendu was an interesting attempt to reinvent themselves after just one album. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. Lacey and co. show on their sophomore album great maturity musically (even if it still is pretty basic, not lending itself to many repeat listens, and still containing those long, pithy song titles like “I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t”), but it’s, again, in the lyrics that make the album seem a lot better than it is. Lacey’s words are so self-reflexive and self-deprecating on the album that it’s no wonder on the next album we find him at his nadir. Consider these words from “I Will Play My Game Beneath the Spin Light,” probably the best song on Deja Entendu:
I write more postcards than hooks/I read more maps than books/I feel like every chance to leave is another chance I should have took/ Every minute is a mile/I’ve never felt so hollow/I’m an old, abandoned church with broken pews and empty aisles/My secrets for a buck/Watch me as I cut myself wide open on this stage, oh I am paid to spill my guts/I won’t see home ‘till Spring/Oh, I would kill for the Atlantic, but I am paid to make girls panic while I sing.
All throughout their sophomore album, Brand New reflect on what it is to be popular in “the scene.” They admit to loving it (from the same song: “Know we do this ‘cause we care not for the thrill.”), but one gets the sense while listening to Deja Entendu that they weren’t doing it on their terms; that they wanted to be more than just people who make girls scream. You got the sense that they weren’t satisfied with how people viewed them as musicians. Lacey literally warns us of the change to come with the final song “Play Crack the Sky” where he sings “this is the end…” as a final nail in the Deja Entendu coffin. Things are going to be different.
And even though Deja Entendu was light years better musically than Your Favorite Weapon, they still had work to do and something to prove. This reflection and overall dissatisfaction with the process and workings of the music machine (and the inadequacies that the creators of that work feel during the process) would be fine-tuned during the next evolutionary step for the band – a three year-plus process of writing, recording, scrapping songs, and starting over anew – allowing them to come to terms with their imperfection and finally complete and release their magnum opus.
So, that brings us to 2006 and the release of The Devil and God and the obvious evolution the band undertook while making this album. A quick note before we get there: In 2005, Brand New was all set to release the album when some of the tracks, still unfinished, leaked. Lacey was so distraught by the idea that people were listening to works in progress (and that they would have pre-conceived notions of the songs based on shitty sounding demos) that he scrapped all of the songs that leaked and wrote new ones (or, in the case of “Sowing Season” and “Luca,” drastically altered them). I think this attributes to the allure of the album; this is one of the things that make the album so elusive because it never feels like the full, completed project the band wanted to make (which might account for some of the odd choices in track order). Lacey even stated that he felt that the record feels “incomplete without those tracks and probably will forever.” So, it’s interesting because we’ll never know how good those tracks were or could have been and what kind of an album they would have made the then-titled Fight Off Your Demons. What we have in The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me is more than antiquate, though, and an album that – however “incomplete” it may be – I am eternally grateful for.
Knowing that Lacey was really affected by the leaked songs and knowing his penchant for self-deprecating lyrics from previous albums, one of the things that makes the album so intriguing is that we’re never quite sure if this is Lacey’s deepest personal demons (the original title for the album was Fight Off Your Demons) being exposed for all to hear, or if this is just Lacey and co. frustration with the recording process (note the voice of the producer at the end of “Limousine” asking about the production) and subsequent leaks of songs they then felt they had to alter. Whatever it is, I’m glad it’s presented the way it is. Sometimes great art isn’t about the finished product sounding polished; sometimes it’s all about the process of making that piece of art. And with The Devil and God, we get an album that aurally reminds me a lot of Radiohead’s The Bends (the ends of “Limousine” and “Luca” sound a lot like the guitar riff from “Just”) and thematically of an Ingmar Bergman film (I love the line from “Jesus Christ,” “Jesus Christ I’m alone again/And what did you do those three days you were dead/Because this problems going to last more than the weekend”; or, the line from “Limousine,” “And in the choir/I saw a sad Messiah/He was bored and tired of my laments/He said, ‘I’ll die for you one time but never again.’” ) There have been plenty of misnomers that people have used when trying to describe this album – too difficult, dark, disjointed, noisy for the sake of being noisy, etc. – and sure, it’s a little messy and the track order seems just a touch off (there really only seems to be one track that seems entirely out of place, “You Are Not the Sun”), but damn if it isn’t lovely and dark and strange in its messiness.
Getting to the tracks: I think one of the most notable differences (for the better) on the band’s third album is the growing presence of Acardi as a writer and lyricist. Lacey reached out to his bandmate, and sharing the duties with Acardi was one of the best things Lacey did because even though he only wrote a few of the songs (“Sowing Season (Yeah)” and “Degausser” as well as the musical “Welcome to Bangkok” to name the best ones), it is his influence on the style that make The Devil and God stand out musically from other Brand New albums (Acardi would take over writing duties for the fantastic follow-up to this album, 2009s Daisy, an album completely different from this one…which is a good thing). The opening tracks (a track that I always think is key to any album, and was apparent in Ed’s choice with The Congo’s wonderfully catchy “Fisherman”) are about as close as Brand New gets to their older sound, yet still sounding more mature and assured in their musicianship and song writing. No longer are the words about busted relationships and teenage angst; instead, “Sowing Season (Yeah)” opens quietly, luring the listener into thinking that this is the old Brand New, before bursting with guitars and Lacey’s trademark scream as he yells “Yeah!” as if he’s assuring us that, even if he isn’t entirely confident in the album, he has no qualms about presenting these songs as they are to his audience (“I am on a mend/At least now I can say that I am trying.”).
“Milestone” is another song that sounds like it could have been from Deja Entendu. The lyrics are distinctly Lacey (“I used to be such a burning example/I used to be so original/I used to care I was being cared for/Make sure I show it to those that I love.”) and I love the pounding of the drums during each verse. These first two tracks set the course for what becomes Lacey and co. absolute deconstruction. The band then heads into “Jesus Christ” which is a song that sounds like a completely different band.
I’ve already quoted my favorite part of “Jesus Christ” above; however, one more thing I can say about the song is just how damn haunting it is. I love that Lacey feels like he never has to amp up the song; it’s just a steady beat throughout (only his voice rises near the end), and again I invoke Radiohead as this song reminds me of the almost comatose “No Surprises” from Ok Computer; it’s an eerie, steady song that knows that it doesn’t have to do anymore than it’s doing with its basic sound. The antithesis of this track is found in the follow up, “Degausser.” This track (which the entire band wrote together in one room) is all about the best elements of the quiet/loud dynamic that Brand New loves to employ on this album and Lacey’s sharp lyrics (“Take me, take me back to your bed/I love you so much that it hurts my head/I don’t mind you under my skin/I’ll let the bad part in, oh, the bad part’s in/When we were made we were set apart/Life is a test and I get bad marks/Now some saint has got the job of writing down my sins/The storm is coming, the storm is coming in.”). It’s an eerie song (the one really good thing the choir adds to it) with its layered vocals and guitar that signals once and for all the tonal shift of the album.
Where Brand New was once predictable in their “quiet then loud” sound, they mix it up a bit on The Devil and God and add in percussion or layers of vocals and guitars in the background during the quiet moments (or a Theremin like in Luca and Untitled). It’s easy to see why the album took them so long to release as they were constantly tinkering with their sound and adding elements to each song. Now, just adding “stuff” to make the album seem more layered and complex isn’t what makes it good. I actually think Brand New are perfectionists to a fault. In some songs, there’s too much going on (the choir, aside from adding an eerie element, is a bit distracting in “Degausser” or the extra little riff at the end of “Limousine”), but these are small nits to pick when considering the album within the band’s context. This is such a giant leap in creativity, musicianship, and maturity that I’m willing to acquiesce to their creative over-indulgences since I think the album, as a whole, works brilliantly in evoking the type of mood they set out to create.
Following “Degausser,” “Limousine” is the next track, and here it is apparent that there isn’t really any kind of interlocking theme to the album’s tracks. One of its elusive qualities is that it jumps around in sound and theme; it’s hard to put your finger on where this album is coming from and what it’s trying to say. And I think that’s because Brand New don’t even know what it’s trying to say. Some songs are more clearly defined than others whether they’re talking about themselves, God, or, as is the case with “Limousine,” the brutal death of 7-year old Katie Flynn told from multiple perspectives. This isn’t an album about “death” or about “God” or about any other label; it contains multitudes. “Limousine” is one of the album’s premier examples of this approach as the song seems like a downward spiral into darkness as the song just keeps repeating itself at the end until it finally does away with the lyrics and explodes with loud guitars before fading out with the sound of their producer, Mike Sapone, calling them about the status of their album. The song is powerful as it examines the heartbreaking story of Katie Flynn – a 7-year old girl killed by a drunk driver as she was riding in a limo coming back from a family wedding – told from the perspective of an omniscient observer, Katie’s mother, and the man responsible for killing Katie, Martin Heidgen (only 25-years old). The aforementioned lines from the song (“…I’d die you for one time but never again.”) are sung from Heidgen’s perspective. Read the linked stories above, then read the lyrics, and then listen to the song again; you’ll see why I think this is a powerful, difficult song that I sometimes have to skip.
“You Won’t Know” is probably the most existential and nihilistic Lacey has been. One of my favorite tracks on the album, the song is another great of the quiet/loud dynamic as Lacey begins with a quiet invitation (“Hey, hey, hey mister hangman/Go get your rope.”) backed by a haunting, repetitive guitar riff before a subtle symbol and some percussion kicks in. Then, utilizing some great production, it’s as if all of those sounds are put in a jar and shaken violently as the song erupts with Lacey’s screams and the bands’ wailing instruments. It’s also a lyrical highlight as Lacey gets all existential on us with lines like, “I wish I could tell you right now (that I love you)/But it looks like I won’t be around/So you won’t know.”; or, “So they say, they say in heaven there’s no husbands and wives/ on the day I show up they’ll be out of their forgiveness supply/And I can’t use the telephone/To tell you that I’m dead and gone/So you won’t know.” The song ends with the same eerie guitar riff and Lacey’s uttering of “you won’t know” over and over to add a piece of punctuation to the string of four songs (starting with “Jesus Christ”) that seems to flow well together.
The next two tracks showcase the best of Acardi the songwriter even if they seem odd on this particular album (and I admit I’m biased because I’m making this statement in hindsight considering I’m taking into account my love of the Acardi-written Daisy) . “Welcome to Bangkok” is a great, messy instrumental song that matches the tone of the album to that point. However, “Not the Sun” seems to be from a completely different planet. It doesn’t really mesh with the previous five songs (the closest things to a concept – they’re all about death – on this album) and feels more at home on a b-side or on their follow up album. It’s not that it’s a bad song; it’s just that it feels completely out of place. Again, it’s a nit to pick. The album is messy; I think Brand New wanted it that way. But, “Not the Sun” is a song that takes me out of the album. (Note: “Not the Sun” was a replacement song, written post-leaked demos, so who knows what would have been in its place had the demos not leaked.)
However, the album almost restarts (it’s almost as if Brand New understands that the listener needs a break from all the darkness) in a big way with the standout track, “Luca”. I love the guitar in this song, and I love the way that Lacey lulls us into a false sense of security with this song before blowing it all up at the end. The ethereal opening to the song punctuated by the blaring, heavy ending is one of the best examples of Brand New’s penchant for quiet/loud dichotomy. “Luca” then transitions into a much maligned track but one that I absolutely love. I think “Untitled” is one of the strangest and most brilliant things Lacey has written. I don’t know what it is doing on the album (it really has no link to any other song) other than it sounds cool and elusive and weird. The use of the Theremin is a nice touch as well as the heavily muffled lyrics of Lacey (“I can never love you/I can never reach you.") who sounds like he’ being smothered by a pillow. I love the little glitches and odd production noises found throughout this song. It’s a short, strange (and some would say needless) track, but I love it.
The next track, “The Archers Bows Are Broken,” is probably the one track on the album that sounds most like a radio-made single. Along with “Jesus Christ,” it’s probably the most accessible track on the record. It’s catchy as hell and shows that Lacey doesn’t just have to write dark, but he can also write pop songs with the best of them. It’s the right tone, too, for the penultimate song as the listener has waded through a lot of heavy stuff and deserves something a little lighter and more upbeat. Which brings me to the final track, “Handcuffs.” Damn is this a hard song to listen to. Oh, I like the strings and I like the creepy way Lacey quietly sings lyrics like, “I’d drown all these crying babies/If I knew that their mothers wouldn’t cry/I’d hold them down and squeeze real soft/And let a piece of myself die.” However, the song is so bizarre and depressing that it takes its toll on this listener. I will say this, though: it’s the perfect ending to an album that seems to mostly be about devolving and Lacey being at his lowest point (“I’d drive my car off of a bridge/If I knew that you weren’t inside.”) both creatively and interpersonally.
So, I’ve written nearly 3,000 words, and I’ve probably bored you all to tears, and I still can’t put my finger on what I love about this album. Which I guess, going back to the very beginning of this thing, is indeed what I love about this album. What did you all think? What were your initial thoughts versus your later thoughts? Did you get through the album upon first listen? What were your favorite/least favorite things about the album? Standout tracks?