Music

Brand New’s Great Would-Be Swan Song ‘Science Fiction’ Is The Emo ‘Abbey Road’

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Scarcity is usually beneficial for artists in any genre, but it’s been especially fruitful for the foundational bands of emo. From the very beginning of the scene — in which short-lived, instantly mythic groups like Rites Of Spring and Embrace set the pace for melodic post-hardcore in the mid-’80s — emo has celebrated bands that flamed out after releasing just a handful of records. The ’90s were a boom time for such groups: Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker, The Promise Ring, Braid, Mineral, Texas Is The Reason, and American Football all had relatively brief careers, either because they were inherently combustible units or because they surmised that being a fleeting proposition might make for a better legacy.

Inevitably, nearly all of those bands were lured back in the ’10s for one-off festival gigs, reunion tours, and even comeback albums. But breaking up remains the wisest decision a budding emo legend can make, as it imbues every album, 7-inch, interview, and concert bootleg with added layers of significance, both intentional and imagined.

Perhaps no band has benefited more from this reflexive lionization of emo’s erratic icons than Brand New, one of the scene’s most beloved groups of the ’00s. The Long Island quartet’s evolution over the course of the decade was unique — they started out as a conventional pop-punk act on 2001’s Your Favorite Weapon, developed a penchant for high melodrama and snarky pop culture references on 2003’s Deja Entendu, took a stab at creating an arty alt-rock masterwork with 2006’s The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me, and stared down encroaching adulthood on 2009’s Daisy. And then … Brand New essentially fell off the radar.

Notoriously press-shy even in its prime, Brand New never officially broke up, though in the ’10s they emerged only for the occasional tour or low-key single. And yet Brand New is more popular than ever. In 2016, Brand New co-headlined a concert at Madison Square Garden with Modest Mouse, fulfilling an early ambition of Brand New’s primary singer-songwriter, Jesse Lacey. At the show, the band sold tour shirts implying that Brand New would end in 2018. Not since NBC’s botched hand-off of The Tonight Show from Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien have retirement plans been telegraphed so far in advance. But the gesture only increased anticipation for Brand New’s fifth, and perhaps, final LP, Science Fiction, which finally dropped on Friday and is expected to top the album charts this week.

While the members of Brand New have generally avoided interviews in recent years, Science Fiction suggests that they’ve paid attention to how the mythos surrounding their band has deepened and intensified. And Brand New has responded with an album that’s exactly as dense, self-absorbed, and thrilling as their following demands.

Everything about Science Fiction screams “conscious career-defining statement,” catering directly to those who are most invested in combing through lyrics for allusions to past records and underlining missives from Lacey that may or may not comment on the history of the band. Nearly every song has an apocalyptic vibe and snatches of lyrics that hint at some sort of reckoning. Moreover, the music on Science Fiction expunges nearly all traces of poppy punk from Brand New’s DNA, and replaces it with stately classic rock that’s heavy on virtuosic guitar flourishes and swelling string sections, the sort of music that sounds inherently funereal.

At times, Science Fiction feels surprisingly aligned with the current moment, particularly “Desert,” a first-person narrative about a far-right, homophobic militant, and “137,” an arrestingly paranoid prayer about nuclear annihilation. But in the context of the other songs — which are introspective to the point of claustrophobia, in typical Brand New fashion — they read more like metaphors for an ongoing process of personal revelation. And that’s driven home by the album’s valedictory arena-rock verve, provided most crucially by guitarist Vincent Accardi, whose courtly playing on prog-tinged numbers like “137” and “Same Logic/Teeth” is reminiscent of David Gilmour. (Pink Floyd is an unexpected influence throughout Science Fiction, appearing most prominently on gorgeous slow-burners such as “Waste” and “In The Water.”)

In terms of carer arc, the band that most reminds me of Brand New is Weezer, which was absorbed into emo and elevated to greatness during the band’s post-Pinkerton hiatus in the late ’90s. The cult around Pinkerton is similar to the cult around The Devil and God Are Raging In Me, an oft-exhilarating angst-athon that’s the closest thing to a Siamese Dream or Downward Spiral to come out of the ’00s. Where Brand New and Weezer diverge is in how they reacted to their corresponding cults — Weezer’s aggressively slight “Green Album” from 2000 is practically an anti-Pinkerton, whereas Science Fiction feels like a warmer, grown-up sequel to The Devil And God.

While Science Fiction revisits themes from previous Brand New albums — the dangers of religious fanaticism, the struggle to ward off personal demons, the yearning for transcendence, not matter how unlikely it seems — the overall tone is conciliatory, as farewells tend to be. It’s easy to imagine Lacey in a different era screaming Science Fiction‘s most striking lyric, from “137” (“Let’s all go play Nagasaki / we can all get vaporized / hold my breath, let’s turn to ash / I’ll see you on the other side”). But on the album, Lacey’s voice is dreamy, floating like a romantic spirit that already seems at least partly conjured. A perfect parting shot, in other words, for fans on message boards and social media who are already dutifully integrating these songs into the fabric of Brand New’s expansive lore.

And yet, what’s most impressive about Science Fiction is how you don’t already have to be a Brand New fan to love it. A treasure trove of luscious guitar tones and grandiose choruses, Science Fiction is one of 2017’s most unabashedly monumental rock records, a magnificent memorial built by a charmingly immodest band to their own past. One diehard has already described Science Fiction as a “suicide note,” but it’s grander (and more pleasurable) than that. It’s more like an emo Abbey Road.

Science Fiction is out now via Procrastinate! Music Traitors. Get it here.

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