Consider the career of any accomplished artist and you’ll find they’ve been held, at some time or another, to a fickle standard: growth. This most unruly of moving goal posts plagues artists, of any medium or genre, the moment it begins to feel as if their cultural impact might last beyond the here and now.
Nowhere else but on the album do artists get stuck so pointedly upon the ever-thinning tightrope. Fans expect growth, a certain amount of reinvention on each album to pique their interests and direct their wallets. Grow too much, though, push your own boundaries too far, and suddenly you’ve alienated the people whose listenership put you in the position in which this chaotic standard of “grow but don’t grow too much or I’ll be angry on the internet about it” applies to begin with.
It’s an unenviable position, really, but also sort of a privileged one. How often does any artist achieve such a stature that something as trivial and temporal as a song might move people to great fits of anger or feelings of betrayal?
This has, in some way, been the story of Brand New’s career. Redefinition between albums is as inextricable from the band’s identity as Jesse Lacey’s quietly violent lyrics and laconic tenor. From when they shirked the Taking Back Sunday school of pop-punk found on Your Favorite Weapon in favor of the darker sounds of Deja Entendu, what has defined this band for nearly two decades has been a pattern of growth as chaotic and unexpected as the ever-shifting standards to which an artist is held. (Newness, after all, is right there in the band name.)
How, then, does it end? With Brand New—if their cryptic messages are to be believed—the road culminates with Science Fiction.
In the terms Lacey and company have laid out in previous efforts, at first listen this, their first album in eight years, appears to play things close to the book, or as close to the book as Brand New have ever played. But Science Fiction is ultimately much more than an exercise in familiarity: it rises from its individual moving parts and becomes a final, definitive monument to the jagged path the band, and by extension their devotees, have taken to arrive at this cathartic conclusion.
Over 61 minutes, the listener follows Lacey’s brooding trail along a sullen landscape, questioning mortality, relevance, and the meaning of happiness. It hasn’t been since The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me that Lacey’s mystique has felt this urgent and honest. In visions of burning alive on “Lit Me Up” to both metaphorical and literal drowning on “In the Water,” the characteristically vague singer bears open his anxieties about being in your 40s in a rock band and the monstrous expectations surrounding the very album on which he’s crooning.
All the while, Vincent Accardi’s guitar work wraps the hurt in a loose, dreamy package. Ranging in sounds silky and discreet (“137”) to acoustic romp (“Could Never Be Heaven”) to almost reminiscent of the distortion of Your Favorite Weapon (“Out of Mana”) Science Fiction’s instrumental core expertly walks the border between eclectic and gimmicky; never does it fall on the wrong side of the line.
Though the album works best as a total package, certain of the songs are bound to become staples of the Brand New setlist, for however long the band continue to tour. “Same Logic/Teeth” is undeniable in its interplay between big, fuzzy chords and quiet anguish, and the album closer “Batter Up” is among the most hauntingly beautiful of this discography’s many such highlights.
Of course, one has to take the step back of wondering whether this album might have as much resonance as it does were it to be, rather than the seeming conclusion of a career, instead an ambitious debut from some unknowns.
No album (or piece of art generally) exists in a vacuum, but it is an interesting question without an obvious answer. If one isn’t already aboard the Brand New train, as it were, what is the likelihood that Science Fiction might compel them to hop on? Admittedly, the chances are unclear, if not slim. But it’s precisely because art does not exist in a vacuum that this question is irrelevant; Science Fiction is as close to perfect of a Brand New album as we are likely to get in 2017, at least partially due to the fact that it is a Brand New album in the year 2017.
Stepping back from such convolution, though, you still have an well-crafted rock album. Though some gems in this pile shine brighter than others, it is nevertheless a pile of gems. Science Fiction is both an open invite to all listeners—as there is enough hookiness and evocation to satiate any discerning listener of rock music—as well as something of a reward for the listeners who have taken the long journey.
If Science Fiction is truly the end of the Brand New experiment, it is difficult to imagine a more rewarding conclusion. Lacey and company leave us both satisfied and wanting more. They’ve met our expectations of growth and, somehow, leave us still curious about how they might’ve grown further.