So it’s official: Brand New are calling it a day after their next album release and tour cycle.
This news has hit me surprisingly hard. I like to consider myself an open minded person, who listens to a broad range of musical genres but the truth is since the age of 16 I have primarily listened to post-hardcore. I’m aware of the irony of this being my favourite genre – part of what defines post-hardcore is it’s refusal to be defined in any concrete terms – but it’s impossible to ignore the impact of hardcore punk and post-punk on many of my favourite bands. At The Drive In, Letlive., Enter Shikari and Touché Amore all have different sounds, but all are unified by their influences. La Dispute and Brand New are two of my favourite bands of all time, due to both having an intense desire to create music outside the wider expectations of alternative music as a whole. This is an earnest, lyrical form of musical expression. Punk music by way of Morrissey if you will. So in honour of Brand New’s impending break up, I wanted to discuss exactly why I love this band so much and why I consider their work to be genre defining.
As I said, lyrically Brand New have always been an earnest, emotionally open band. Take for example the song “Soco Amaretto Lime” from the band’s debut album Your Favourite Weapon. This song is about graduation, and is an ode to the glory days of your youth and interspersed with an attack on an ex-partner that the narrator has since gotten over. Lyrically the song speaks for a wistful youth. For example:
I’m gonna stay eighteen forever (cut me open), so we can stay like this forever (sun poisoned), and we’ll never miss a party (this offer still stands), ’cause we keep them going constantly
In a sense, it’s a song about the feeling of immortality of youth. This character has graduated, in the verge of adulthood, yet they still feel like they’ll remain a teenager forever. This would appear to be standard pop-punk fair but Jesse Lacey subverts this at the end of the song. The hook – “you’re just jealous ’cause we’re young and in love” – doesn’t fade out, it cuts out abruptly. You won’t stay young forever, and there’s the suggestion that this nostalgic immortality will just disappear one day. Even within Brand New’s early work, we are presented with a song that speaks for a wistful, Catcher in the Rye-esque longing to reject adulthood, whilst simultaneously recognising the inherent futility of chasing this idea.
But Brand New don’t truly become a genre-defining band until their sophomore album Deja Entendu. Dismissing Your Favourite Weapon as an album still primarily about breaking up with girls, the band aim to explore a more ambitious lyrical style with the follow up. In a way, Deja Entendu is an album of complicated themes, fully formed narratives and cynical personal stories. The title translates as “already heard”, and is intended to be a tongue in cheek nod to the derivative nature of the post-hardcore genre. It’s now impossible to be truly original within the American music industry, so Brand New acknowledge that their target audience has heard everything they are trying to do before.
Lyrically Deja Entendu maintains it’s honesty, but now it is more complicated both thematically and performatively. Take for example the third track on the album, “I Will Play My Game Beneath The Spin Light”. A lament on the life of the band on constant tour, Jesse sings most of the song through an arrogant sneer. For example:
Oh I would kill for the Atlantic, but I am paid to make girls panic while I sing
I’m obsessed with this line. Jesse mocks the “emo” sexualised front man shtick through his performance. This isn’t a brag, it’s a comment about how these alternative bands market themselves as sexual objects to their disenfranchised female teen fanbase. Brand New aren’t in this business to become teenage crushes, they’d all rather be home. This tone continues into darker territory:
My secrets for a buck, watch me as I cut myself wide open on this stage, yes I am paid to spill my guts.
The song therefore exists on a meta level. Jesse recognises the introspective nature of his work, but it appears to be a self destructive process. The act of sharing such raw emotion is akin to self-harm. And the price of this? “A buck”. “I Will Play My Game…” is an attempt to create an earnest form of expression whilst simultaneously recognising the commercialisation of such art within the western world. This alternative music scene has been built around honest, open songs but Brand New start to differentiate themselves from the crowd by recognising the irony inherent within this subculture; “true”, emotionally brutal art is being mass produced and thrown away cheaply within our post modern society.
Deja Entendu also differs from Your Favourite Weapon through it’s use of a narrative voice that the listener isn’t necessarily supposed to relate too. When someone hears “Soco Amaretto Lime” they are supposed to buy into this wistful desire to never grow up, but when someone hears something like “Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis” the reaction is significantly more complicated. Another song about dating, “MvMvE” marks itself as unique by being told from the point of view of someone who cynically uses women for short term sexual thrills. Jesse yet again mixes up his vocal style, saying the violent imagery in a light whisper. For example:
I got desperate desires and unadmirable plans, my tongue will taste of gin and malicious intent
And you’re using all your looks that you’ve thrown from the start, if you let me have my way I swear I’ll tear you apart
Jesse’s vocal performance is the perfect amount of unsettling, adding weight to these already quite morbid lyrics. This isn’t a love song, akin to Your Favourite Weapon or even the pop-punk genre as a whole. This is a song that promotes the destruction of an unaware woman. The narrator lies and tricks this woman, feigning emotion until he can get his sexual thrill; once this is done, he’ll throw away the empty husk of her. Now I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t find the message of this song to be instantly relatable? Unlike their debut album, Deja Entendu is willing to go to darker more confusing places. Brand New don’t expect their audience to relate to the cynical womaniser narrator of this song, but they adopt this point of view to explore a taboo lifestyle perhaps not fully understood. Like all good art, “Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis” encourages the listener to consider themes and ideas perhaps outside of their usual wheelhouse; it takes you to some uncomfortable places in the hope of teaching you something new, about either society or yourself.
As you can probably tell Deja Entendu is one of my favourite albums of all time. In my opinion it is a genuine masterpiece and it’s influence to alternative American music can not be understated. I didn’t even mention Brand New’s other genuine masterpiece – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside of Me – an album that deals with larger themes of mortality and religion. If you’re reading this and you haven’t heard the album, I recommend giving Jesus Christ or Degausser a go. I wasn’t sure where I was fully heading when is started writing this, it came from an emotional reaction to the break up. But I guess in the end I wanted to break down what makes Brand New a rare talent within the post-hardcore landscape. Hopefully you can see from the songs I discussed here that the band are never fully happy to only exist within the confines of the emo subgenre, but instead it takes the conventions that define a band as an “emo band” and stretches the rules and confines. In a sense Brand New is one of those truly special bands that are very hard to properly define within the traditional framework of alternative American music.
In 2018 we will be losing a band with the desire and ability to create true art, and the world will be worse off for it.