Brand New returned in a big way last Thursday with the surprise release of Science Fiction, its fifth studio album and first since 2009’s hotly contested Daisy. Once again, everything was done on the band’s own terms, with a minimal (and expectedly weird) rollout and a finished product unlike any in their catalogue. After the shock and glee of actually having a brand new Brand New album out in the world had subsided, the Behind the Setlist staff (with help from a few guests) answered a series of questions to try and come to grips with our emotions.
What is your relationship with Brand New like at this point?
Kevin Carr: “It’s complicated.”
Jonathan Bautts: For the longest time, Brand New was a staple in my top five bands of all time. But those days have since passed, and in recent years I wouldn’t even place them in the discussion for my top 10. They’re one of the most fan-unfriendly bands on the planet, and I’ve grown exhausted by how they constantly mess with people. It also doesn’t help how they seldom make it out to the West Coast this decade.
J.T. Dawson: Real talk: They were my ex’s favorite. So when we split in 2008, Brand New dropped off my consciousness. I didn’t even listen to Daisy until several years after it came out. And when I’d heard vague rumblings that a fifth album was coming, I was firmly in the “I’ll believe it when I have it in my hand and there are actually songs on it” camp. I’m still a little shocked and confused it’s out. It’s really them, right? We’re not all being punk’d?
David Herrmann: Brand New is my favorite band along with Manchester Orchestra. I listen to their work at least multiple times per week. They are the band I listen to when I need to feel, when I need to escape, when I need to relax.
Garrett McElver: We’ve been in a healthy relationship since 2003. I still go to each tour, wear the merch, pick “Seventy Times 7” during car sing-a-longs, play Deja Entendu songs on guitar, blast Devil and God on late night drives, and lay in bed listening to the recently officially released leaked demos (that I totally downloaded online once upon a time).
So the million dollar question… Is Science Fiction worth the eight-year wait?
Carr: Somehow, yes. After the ugly misstep that was Daisy, and the unfulfilling teases of “Mene” and “I Am a Nightmare,” it’s amazing they pulled off anything as satisfying as Science Fiction. But it’s totally good. Like, actually, really good. Frustratingly so. I’m not going to pretend it’s the best album I’ve ever heard, but it’s definitely among the best of this year.
Bautts: No. I’m not sure any album has ever lived up to an extended period of hype and buildup as long as this. If it was Brand New’s best album of their career, it might have been justified, but it’s not. Removed from expectations, it still is a great record, though.
Dawson: On its face, it’s a great album. But asking about the eight-year wait brings up all the overwrought drama and hype surrounding this band and this release in particular, and I don’t think any album ends up being worth that.
Herrmann: Hell yes! That album came out of nowhere. I love the feel to it. It’s more subdued than past work, but it fits for where they are in life. I love how it’s super eerie, yet familiar. It’s just pure Brand New goodness.
McElver: Yes! I’m what feels like one of the few defenders of Daisy, but I do recognize it’s their weakest album by a lot. So I’ve been in the camp of “however long it takes, as long as it’s true to Brand New and eventually happens” for a new album. It doesn’t disappoint.
What is the best song on the album? Worst song?
Carr: “137,” “In the Water” and “No Control” are all currently tied for favorite song. Worst is definitely the flavorless “Out of Mana,” a forgettable tune made worse by a bad mix. With Brand New, it’s hard to know what’s intentional and unintentional, but it sure seems like they did everything they could to sabotage that song.
Bautts: “In the Water” is the early highlight for me, with some textures and instrumentation they’ve never played around with before. I really like “Out of Mana” too, and “Lit Me Up” if it had been fleshed out more. Worst song is easily “No Control,” whose dud chorus sounds like a half-developed B-side and had little business making the cut.
Dawson: For best song, I’m torn between “Can’t Get It Out” for its lyrics and melody and “137” for its awesome guitar prowess. I don’t think there are any bad songs, but I probably connected with “Batter Up” the least. It feels too long and a little directionless. Which means it will probably become my favorite in time.
Herrmann: “Desert” and “137” hands down are tied as my favorites. I love the build-up, the lyrics in each of these. I truly hope they open with “137” on the next tour. It’s so perfect and such a capstone that could have fit on Devil and God. Worst song to me (can I REALLY say that?) is probably “Batter Up.” It just doesn’t “get me” like the rest of the album. I love it still, but just have a tendency to view that as my least favorite on this album.
McElver: This answer will definitely change as I listen to the album about 10,000 more times. “Waste” comes to mind as the best right now. “Batter Up” has had the least replay value for me so far.
Did any of the songs surprise you?
Carr: I find “In the Water” incredibly compelling. Musically, it may be the most diverse song of their catalogue: a mandolin, an organ, a harmonica (with some cool effect on it). Jesse’s vocal track is refreshingly clean for the majority of the song, which is much needed at this point on the record. The melody in the bridge/outro strikes me as both derivative and innocent, like a church worship song from the ‘90s. Lyrically, there’s a lot to process. Everything about it is fascinating.
Bautts: The thing I was most surprised by is how not heavy most of the songs are and how much acoustic guitar they decided to include. Course correction or not, I think the former holds several of the songs back from their fullest potential. As for a song specifically, the call-and-response on “Desert” was quite unexpected.
Dawson: The whole album surprised me: A) That it exists, and B) That as a whole it’s as subdued as it is. I expected a little more “crazy.” I predicted they’d continue in the same direction as Daisy, but push it even further. As far as one song in particular, the low vocal that sings the line “at the bottom of the ocean, fish won’t judge you by your faults” in “Same Logic/Teeth” jumps out and surprises me every time.
Herrmann: “Desert!” I love the back-up vocals throughout the song. It’s such a fun direction for these guys to go. It just feels “big” and could be a single on alternative stations.
McElver: “No Control” sounds like a total Deja Entendu B-side.
What did you make of the interlude recordings?
Carr: The style is the substance, if that makes sense. Like Dark Side of the Moon, the interlude recordings are a part of the music, offering a real sense of unpredictability and loss of control. (Commenting on the mental illness theme that crops up throughout? I don’t know.) Ultimately, it works better here than it did on Daisy for the simple reason that the songs are better and the recordings are more interesting.
Bautts: Hated it. If I were giving the album a grade, those alone would take it down an automatic half-grade. I tallied it up and there is over seven minutes of intro/outro material, roughly 11 percent of the album’s runtime. That is far too much bloat and ruins whatever mood tie-ins they were aiming for. The only one I was kind of intrigued by was Jesse’s acoustic coda to “Out of Mana,” but the poor quality makes me wish it were just a real song instead. Needless to say, I have already edited them all out of my own personal copy on iTunes.
Dawson: This was one of the rare occasions where I found them fitting and strangely comforting. Normally, stuff like that pulls me out of the music, but here, even the scream before “Waste” seems like it just goes there. The interludes bring a creepiness factor to the record, like we’ve accidentally eavesdropped on this whole album. I dig it.
Herrmann: Eerie as hell! I love it. We’ve come to expect this fun playful eerie-ness from BN. It just plays in. I haven’t investigated it much, but someone mentions it’s from or has references to Close Encounters?
McElver: I dig them! Adds to the full album listening experience.
Jesse Lacey’s lyrics are…
Carr: A cinematic universe. “137” is absolutely haunting. “Desert” is hypnotizing. “No Control” is almost spiritual. It feels all interconnected, especially the callbacks to older material and the ongoing motif of water. I need one of them one-dollar lyric sheets!
Bautts: More of the same. While Brand New’s instrumentation has changed in leaps and bounds over the years, Lacey is still largely writing about the same subjects he was 15 years ago, namely anxiety issues and a loss of faith. He seems to have more self-awareness and straightforward bluntness on this record than ever before, from callbacks to past material to “Can’t Get It Out” and “Desert,” but at a certain point it would be nice to see him branch out from behind his go-to box more often.
Dawson: Evidence of some kind of psychic connection to Morrissey. I mean, they’re pretty dark and depressing, even for Lacey, but well-crafted. I don’t get the feeling that they’re dark and depressing just for emo’s sake. It feels like there’s weight behind them.
Herrmann: Like a fine aged wine opened for the first time in 50 years.
McElver: Solid overall. Moments of exceptional, moments of eh.
What is your biggest praise of the album as a whole? Biggest criticism?
Carr: Biggest praise? The songwriting is balanced, mature and massive. There is a piece of Brand New here for every type of Brand New fan. Musically, it’s their most interesting album. Biggest criticism? Probably the mix. I haven’t genuinely loved a Brand New mix since Deja. I understand the desire for subtle grunge, but you’ve gotta get out of your own way. Brand New should look to Modest Mouse for guidance here, whose last album successfully packaged grunge and indie with a more accessible mix.
Bautts: Arguably the most impressive thing Brand New has done is to make five stylistically distinct albums from each other, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Science Fiction has moments of familiarity, but is its own complete entity. MVP is definitely Vinnie Accardi, whose layered guitar work and soloing most deserves the praise this album is getting.
The biggest criticism I have, besides the interludes, is the album isn’t very dynamic. By that, I mean there isn’t much of the quiet-loud interplay that has become a bedrock of many of Brand New’s best moments. On Science Fiction, if something starts soft or heavy, it usually stays that way for the song’s duration, and for some reason the band holds back. Most annoyingly is on “Lit Me Up,” which is so close to being amazing, but never strays from one tempo. It doesn’t even have to necessarily be a heavy part, more a general opening up of instrumentation, like on “Desert” where the quiet guitars after the first chorus saps all momentum out of the song.
Unfortunately, probably the two most standard quiet-loud songs, “Same Logic” and “137,” get slightly marred by a poorly written and produced chorus (on the former, and ironically first moment where Lacey screams on the album) and regrettable lyric choices (like the “play Nagasaki” line on the latter).
Dawson: I like that there’s a lot of style shakeup across the album. I can feel a lot of their different influences, but it all fits together and flows from start to finish. Rarely anymore do I prefer to listen to an album straight through, in order, but I don’t see myself ever listening to this one piece by piece unless I have to for some reason. I think that’s an artistic accomplishment, especially these days when singles rule supreme.
For criticism, I wish there was more edge. More grit. More… teeth. There’s some, but overall I think they could’ve brought more of that in. They’re so close to going over the cliff in songs like “Same Logic/Teeth” or “Out of Mana,” but never lose control. I want to hear them lose it. Just for a second. This album reminds me strongly of Puscifer and how they walk a similar line, but with a touch less restraint. It’s a delicate balance, and this record is oh so close.
Herrmann: The album’s biggest praise from me is they changed it up again. It’s different, yet familiar. It’s not a repeat of Daisy, which is my favorite record of theirs. It’s like a sequel to Devil and God, where God is talking back. Wait, that kind of makes sense in a way. Hmmmmm. Biggest criticism, these dudes know how to get at my heart. That release, I mean, hello panic attack.
McElver: It’s sort of the same answer for both: no screaming. I love the effect it has on Devil and God, and it’s the heavy songs on Daisy that keep me going, but I also appreciate their refined approach to songwriting this time around.
Where does Science Fiction fit into Brand New’s discography?
Carr: How do you compare Your Favorite Weapon to Science Fiction? Impossible. It’s like apples and oranges, or worse: Apple Jacks and oranges. But for the sake of being a good sport, here we go: Deja > Devil > SF > YFW > the other one. It’s worth noting that depending on the year, Devil and YFW will filp order. I’ve noticed that as Devil gets older, I relate to it less and less, and the nostalgia value of YFW increases.
Bautts: In competition with Daisy for third place, behind Devil and God and Deja. It is a more consistent and unified album than Daisy for sure, but also never matches that album’s highs, either. For example, nothing on Science Fiction comes close to matching the exhilaration I get from listening to “Vices.” So it’s kind of a pick ‘em right now, with Science Fiction likely holding the slight edge.
Dawson: This feels similar to Radiohead’s In Rainbows in that it’s a bit of a course correction. Radiohead went headlong into experimental territory with Hail to the Thief and then pulled it back around with In Rainbows, mixing their love of weird sounds with strong melodies and more structurally intact songs. It seems like Daisy pushed Brand New past the barrier and into territory even they weren’t quite comfortable with. This record takes some of that, but brings it closer to center. It’s a very mature record in that sense, and you can hear the evolution in it. The question is, will they get their King of Limbs and Moon Shaped Pool?
Herrmann: Right now, I’d put it right after Devil and God. It’s middle of the road, but that’s how Daisy was before it moved up my list to the top in their discography.
McElver: It’s incredibly hard fighting nostalgia with this band. It’s still not going to top their first three albums in my ranking, but I can safely place it above Daisy. In time, I’m curious how I reflect and more objectively rank them.
Science Fiction is on pace to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Reaction?
Carr: If they crack the top five, or even the top 10, it’s still a big deal. No music videos, no album streams, no interviews. No real marketing strategy at all. Is there even a single yet? This whole thing reminds me of when Radiohead released In Rainbows. So anti-attention seeking that you had to pay attention to it. It’s a strategy only so many artists can pull off. Brand New and Radiohead, apparently.
Bautts: They picked a perfect time to surprise drop an album, as sales have been really slow over the last month. But in all seriousness, it’s a remarkable achievement for this cult band we all grew up on and a testament to how rabidly fervent a fan base they have, perhaps the most in all of rock music. It’s still a trip to see how widely covered they are now, compared to even a handful of years ago.
Dawson: If that happens, good for them. Again, I think the hype and drama around them is way beyond annoying, but they made a solid record that has been hotly anticipated. To see it go No. 1 would give me further hope for rock music.
Herrmann: So damn proud of these guys. They certainly deserve all the praise. Maybe this will make them re-consider breaking up…
McElver: About damn time. I’ve always wanted the world to take them seriously. They’re not just an emo band, people!
Is this Brand New’s swan song? Do they break up in 2018?
Carr: I can’t imagine they break up now. I mean, they toured off of Devil and God for over 10 years. They’re really only going to tour Science Fiction for one year? Give me a break. That said, I also can’t imagine they release any new albums. The man himself is pretty clear: “This is the last one.”
Bautts: Honestly, I don’t care much either way. I’ve given up expecting anything out of this band. I’d still love more new music from them, obviously, but I understand if they don’t want to continue. I just hope if they do end, they go out the right way and give people a last tour to see them on, and that it’s not an abrupt or limited type thing. Plus, I am very intrigued to hear how Science Fiction translates live and if Jesse screams over much of it, as he has been known to do with songs. But if the whole “Brand New 2000 – 2018” thing was a charade this whole time, that is pretty bad taste in my opinion.
Dawson: If they don’t, then they seriously need to stop talking about it, like, two years ago. I’m not saying I want them to go away. I don’t. I’d love to have more new music from them. There’s just a limit to when an impending breakup starts to feel less like an uncertainty and more like a ploy for attention.
Herrmann: Ha! Honestly, I think it is. Sadly. But, I get it. Jesse seems like he wants to do other things besides being the frontman for a band he started when he was in high school. I’d be sick of it. But, I don’t think they “break up.” More like go back into the abyss, maybe return from time to time. I do think we have more music to be released from them, some way or another.
McElver: Even if they do break up next year, if Guns N’ Roses came back, Brand New will definitely come back again.
Your final (initial) takeaway from the album.
Carr: What I love so much about this album is that it knows what I want better than I do. This is not the album I would’ve chosen, but I’m so glad it’s the one they released. In many ways, Science Fiction reminds me of what the Twin Peaks revival has been doing so effectively: favoring progression over nostalgia, but not at the cost of the past. There are still hints of old Brand New here. You hear it in the harmonies. In the quiet, earnest moments. Most obviously, in the lyrics. But there is also a strong sense of exploration, a feeling that—despite whatever chains us to the past—the future remains unwritten.
Bautts: Another uniquely captivating entry into the Brand New mythos, the kind of which only Brand New seems to provide. There are a handful of flaws that hinder it from being on the level of the band’s best two albums or a masterpiece, which apparently some are prematurely throwing around already, but it is one of the better albums of the year. Fittingly, that sums up Brand New in the most Brand New-ish way possible. A lot of good, a lot of frustration, a lot of internet debating. What more can you say?
Dawson: I wanted to hate it, but I just don’t. It’s really, really good. When I travel back in time to Your Favorite Weapon, I hear how much they’ve grown as musicians and as songwriters, and it makes me a little sad for the future. It makes me realize there’s probably still a lot of growth and creative potential in there. If they’re done, they’re done. I get that. But I find myself already wishing for the next one and wondering where it’ll land, stylistically.
Herrmann: Brilliant piece of recording. The album release was done so well and bonded the Brand New community together. Heck, listening to the Facebook Live of the guy listening to it was so much fun. I’ve made friends in that community in less than four days. In the world of Trump, it’s such a welcome change from the day-to-day social media battles.
McElver: Can’t wait to see it live!