Sunday, September 6, 2009

#116. 'I am not your friend, I am just a man who knows how it feels'

Brand New "Sowing Season (Yeah)"

How weird is it for a band to embody both 00s faux-emo and the "real" emo that hearkens back to bands like Indian Summer? The two seem diametrically opposed, the former coming from pop punk and the latter from hardcore, yet it's hard to talk about Brand New without bringing both forms into play. Looking back to Your Favorite Weapon you'd be pretty hard pressed to call them anything but pop-punk with a certain edge to it, 'edge' being present in that they'd openly wish death upon an unfaithful girlfriend rather than just mope about it. 2003's Deja Entendu was a huge step forward, replacing the rather formulaic trappings of YFW with something resembling individuality. It still plays as part of the arena-pop-punk genre but it's definitely got more going on than most of those bands could dream of, moments of actual menace ("Jaws Theme Swimming") and genuinely wrenching emotion that set them apart from their brethren and put them close to the same league as the classic emo bands. I wasn't expecting that they'd make an equal or greater jump after that, but they proved me wrong.

I'll just get this out of the way now: The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me is one of the most surprisingly great albums of the decade, a well thought out, mature work about the existential crises attendant to getting older delivered with a level of passion that few of BN's peers could hope to approach. Jesse Lacey really came into his own as a lyricist here and the band matched his progress and managed to stay away from the more cliched trappings of what the genre they're associated with has become. There's little trace of the radio-slick band that made Your Favorite Weapon or the slightly more mature but still cliche-ridden one that produced Deja Entendu, it's as if the three years between albums allowed the band to almost completely reconfigure themselves and come back as a much more precise and exacting unit. The songs are uniformly brilliant, the lyrics are smart but not in a self-conscious way and the whole thing fits together seamlessly as a portrait of how life gets more complex as you get older. I'm probably gonna talk a lot more about it in a few weeks when I get to my top 100 albums, but it's important to get into that a bit here to give a bit of perspective on what's to come.

"Sowing Season" is one of the most effective tracks on the album, maybe second only to "You Won't Know," and probably the best example of how much the band has grown since Deja Entendu. It starts out relatively calmly, and not in the usual clean guitar arpeggio leading up to the explosive chorus way but with an almost campfire-ready acoustic riff and singer Jesse Lacey in a much more laid back form than he's been on even the quieter moments of BN's older stuff. The subject matter is darker but the delivery is much more resigned than even the quiet parts of Deja. When a song starts up with a line like 'losing all my drinking and to driving' you'd expect some hint of anger or even whining in the vocals but Lacey plays it mostly reserved, but it's not unemotional at all, more like he's doing his best to play it cool in light of how things are going but below the surface there's much more going on.

That's all just a prelude to the chorus though. After Lacey lets out the most convincingly pained wail he's put down yet the whole band ramps themselves up. The guitars that were pretty just a few seconds earlier are now pummeling and ferocious, the drums are right behind them in terms of ferocity and Lacey just keeps repeating the most unhinged 'YEAH's I've heard in any context. It may not sound like much, but the way it just explodes out of the relatively calm verse section with no warning is truly something. Even though I know it's coming now it still gives me that chill I look for when a truly great moment hits me, that little shock that reminds me just how much the transition shifted my perception of the song. The first verse suggested a bit of a resigned attitude towards the way things were going, but the chorus shatters that illusion and casts a pall over the rest of the song.

The song follows the same general pattern after that, with more reserved verses giving way to the same explosive chorus, but each new verse brings in more lyrical baggage to unpack. The whole song is about death if you want to boil it down to one word, but on another level it's about coping with it, using the grieveing process to bring about your own growth. The imagery of the middle section where it's like Lacey is comparing the corpses laid in earth to seeds in the cold ground (shades of Aranofsky's The Fountain there...) and then cautions 'it takes a while to grow anything' may well be the most succinct summation of grief I've heard. There's plenty of other great lyrics throughout here, and that may be what sets TDAGARIM apart from the rest of Brand New's oeuvre more than anything, but the most devastating bit is saved for the end.

The more I think about the last verse the more i'm convinced that it's a critique of the sort of fan that a lot of these newer breed "emo" band attract, the ones who over-identify with the lyrics and adopt the bands behind them as something to fill whatever void they're currently dealing with. The whole song is about this process of replacing what your missing with something else, but I wouldn't be surprised if Lacey isn't exactly comfortable with his music being used as such. The last verse seems to be saying that while he gets what's happening and identifies with you, the listener, as far as how much loss of any kind hurts it's not his place to fill the void. The last lines before the chorus comes back ('I am not your friend, not your lover, not your family') all but confirm that to me, but that's not set in stone (and I have a tendency to over-analyze things I like.)

Given that outlook it's kind of amazing how much the song still manages to resonate on an emotional level. As a meditation on loss it works much better than any other songs of the type, mostly because it doesn't resort to cheap sentimentalism and maintains objectivity on the whole situation. The attempt to distance itself from the process is kind of essential to the objectivity, and it's one of the better touches a song like this could ask for.

Coming up tomorrow: A good cover version or harmonies make things better.

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