Friday, November 27, 2009

#34. Brand New - The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me (Interscope, 2006)

There are some albums that don't reveal themselves fully after one listen. There are some albums that won't fully reveal themselves until about the 10th listen. Then there are those albums that you need to hear in a certain set of circumstances in order to begin to fully appreciate the depth they have. I'd be lying if I said I was fully in The Devil and God's corner after one listen, I knew it was a solid record and one hell of a step forward from Brand New's previous albums - both of which, it needs to be said, are growers in their own right - in terms of both composition and subject matter, but I wouldn't have dreamed of putting it in my top 100 of the decade. I liked the album well enough, but outside of a few moments - "Handcuffs", "You Won't Know" and "Millstone" specifically at that point - it didn't strike me as a great album.

But I kept coming back to it for some reason. And not just cherry-picking the great moments either; any time I decided to listen to it I'd get the whole thing down. It still wasn't making much headway into great album territory, though more individual songs were added to the list of great moments, but I kept coming back to it more so than a lot of album's I'd consider better than it. I don't know exactly why it kept happening, maybe I had more of an inclination that it could be a great album than I realized at that point, but after about a dozen listens over a month or so it started to click in some ways. The songs seemed to have more of a cohesive theme than I'd expected, not quite the concept album some of its more ardent fanatics claim it to be (more on that in a bit) but it certainly felt like there was a connection between the songs no matter how tenuous.

I don't know what made it finally click, but right after my penultimate year of university I gave it a spin and it hit me in a way that I wasn't expecting. It could just be the fact that it was the first time I didn't have other things pressing on my mind while I was listening - note to any university students reading this, "The Archer's Bows Have Broken" makes for excellent lab writing music - or the fact that it was slowly dawning on me that I was gonna graduate in a year and didn't have much of a plan for myself outside of 'get a job' but at that point the whole album just fell into place in front of me. It was about feeling like a disappointment to all around you, it was about losing everything you live for, it was about growing up without actually being ready to, and instead of being maudlin about it it was all delivered with the sort of maturity I wouldn't have expected from the dudes that made "Jude Law and a Semester Abroad" a mere 4 years before this. It was so obvious at this point that I felt a bit stupid for not picking up on it til then, but once that missing piece fell into place the album took on a new level of greatness for me.

The subject matter here is much more personal yet at the same time more universal than on previous BN outings as well. Songs about fucked up relationships and obsessive love still pop up through out, but then there's things like "Jesus Christ," one of the most well thought out songs about crises of faith I've heard on a secular album, or the absolutely devastating "Limousine (MS Rebridge)" that examines a tragic accident involving a child getting killed by a drunk driver. Even the relationship centered songs seem to occupy a different sphere than the band's previous experience in that area, "Handcuffs" caught between misguided romanticism and borderline stalker-ish obsession without falling firmly on either side and "Degausser" playing out like a drunk-dial turned self-examination that's in turn desperate and insightful.

Seeing how far along Jesse Lacey has come as a lyricist - though looking back there were hints of that as far back as Your Favorite Weapon - was one of the things I appreciated about TDAGARIM from the first listen, but after the click it started to downright astound me how evocatively he was rendering these harrowing little vignettes. Each of the songs, even the ones I'm not overly fond of have this weird sort of power to them that goes beyond their constituent parts, and that's all due to the unexpected depth Lacey's lyrics have acquired over time. The Devil and God is the kind of album I can actually understand people obsessing over, and I mean that as a huge compliment. I don't agree with the sect of people who want to turn the album into a full story about the driver from "Limousine" but I can understand why they've taken the time to interpret the rest of the album in that light.*

To me, as I said earlier, it's an album about loss, plain and simple. Lost potential ("The Archer's Bows Have Broken", "Millstone") lost friends ("Sowing Season", "Limousine") lost faith ("Jesus Christ") lost love ("Not the Sun", "Handcuffs")...there's so much loss through the album that it should feel more depressing than it does, but something in the band's playing keeps it from being a slog. It's got moments of utter beauty slamming into some of the band's most aggressive stuff to this day, moments of tension that let forth some of the most genuine catharsis in any genre this decade. The band's sound has come along just as far as Lacey's lyrics, all but abandoning the more traditional pop-punk/emo sound for something more multi-faceted and dynamic. Just look at the contract between the military precision of "Archers" and the restrained beauty of "Handcuffs" or the way that "You Won't Know" just explodes after a couple minutes of tandem cello and guitar - this isn't the kind of thing I'd have thought them capable of pulling off as well as they do here. Whatever the impetus was for this growth, I'm more than glad that they underwent it and that the results were this stunning, even if I wasn't on board at first.

*Though that sect of people is certainly on to something in sequencing the album as starting at "Welcome to Bangkok" and ending with "You Won't Know". It doesn't fundamentally alter the feeling of the album but it does flow a bit better, plus "Bangkok" is better suited as an opener than as a mid album interlude and "You Won't Know" definitely works as a closer to rival if not surpass "Handcuffs". Try it sometime, it's a nice way to rediscover the album.

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