Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now. This week: Brand New’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me.
Anniversary Records: Brand New – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me
by Chad Jewett
Few bands have the mystique that cloaks Brand New – the aura of almost occult mystery, partly the result of the band’s own decisions and evolutions, partly the result of circumstance. The dark left turn signaled by 2003’s Deja Entendu and drastically doubled-down on with 2006’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, which celebrates a 10 year anniversary this month, is partly to thank for all this intrigue. There’s a passionate melancholy at the heart of The Devil and God that can get over your head at any time. The same goes for its 2009 follow-up, Daisy. There’s also the fact that breakup rumors have swirled around Brand New for over a decade (that several songs on Deja Entendu more or less painted touring as a Kafkaesque hell did little to stem the whispering). But there is also the fact that an early demo version of the album was swiped and leaked in early 2006 – a version that found the Long Island quartet playing with different textures (drum programming, piano, practically theatrical minor key dirges) that the band largely eschewed on the official version released later that year. This raised all the expected questions: What might the album have sounded like if it hadn’t been wrenched out of the oven before fully baked? Where might we find the traces of those early ideas in the final product? Where did the stories intersect? What did those demos tell us about the record we ended up with?
But even without those unintended appendices and personal subtexts, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me is a haunting, opaque challenge of an album, one that is quite satisfied to steep in its own guilt-ridden, ghostly anxiety for its full 55 minutes. Even that cover, a little girl standing in front of a weathered farm house as two men dressed bizarrely and ominously in black cloaks and dollar store Halloween masks, stand a few feet away, obscured by a wall of chipped white paint, framed by an autumnal tree branch. The image is both mystifying and unsettling, and its contrast of innocence and evil is at the heart of the album, right down to its title. The Devil and God offers a kind of agonized biblical vision (a frequent subject for Lacey and Accardi), equal parts Puritan (the album is full of sinners in the hands of an angry God) and Catholic, its focus split between a kind of determinist human fallibility and a just-barely-hopeful search for salvation. The subject of “Limousine (MS Rebridge)” wonders how to live with his remorse as a doubtful, sardonic Christ stands just offstage. “Degausser” has its share of ideas about faith and hypocrisy as it castigates one subject: “Goodbye, you liar / Well, you sipped from the cup but you don’t own up to anything.” The narrator of “You Won’t Know” ponders death as an existential riddle – is the afterlife a promise or a threat? — finding an ironic curse in the idea of an afterlife forever cut off from the waking world below (or above).
In some ways, the album recalls the similar questions being asked by Conor Oberst at around this time, as both Lifted (2002) and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn (2005) – his two best albums with Bright Eyes – teased out puzzles of faith and despair. But where Oberst eventually landed on a humanistic, nearly ecstatic belief in our better angels as the closest thing to a surefire version of “God” (songs like “Easy/Lucky/Free” might doubt heaven, but they certainly bow to human goodness and hope cautiously for some kind of afterlife), Jesse Lacey’s search offers much harsher revelations: specifically, the troubling fact that there might not be anything to reveal. Thus his characters — who at times seem connected to one another, at others seem to spin off into their own discrete crises – are Hamlet-like in their self-loathing and quicksand interiority. “Now I’ve made this bed and I can’t fall asleep in it” coos Lacey on “Millstone” in a gothic low-tenor drawl that defines most of his singing on the album. The line is practically a thesis for the record at large, a concept album about people haunted by ghosts of their own making. That the song’s title references a passage in the Gospel of Mark, warning that it would be better for a person to drown with a millstone tied to their neck than to lead an innocent person astray, underlines much of the album’s motifs of sin, repentance, guilt, and memory.
That this is followed by “Jesus”, a song with the album’s most overtly biblical title and its most overtly sexual narrative, only underlines the potentially subversive narrative and philosophical games Lacey and company are playing. A whole lot of The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me is about visceral humanity and how well or little our actions suit our souls – provided we have them. “Jesus” is thus one of the album’s most daring moments in the way it ponders intimacy and passion, trying to see where it fits into hidebound versions of righteousness. Most interesting (and novel) is the way Lacey paints both physical intimacy and withering self-flagellation as something ecstatic. In that way the song plays out like a more neurotic version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, complete with that song’s daring teasing out of “passion” as both a religious and physical concept. “Do I get the gold chariot? Do I float through the ceiling? / Do I divide and pull apart? / ‘Cause my bright is too slight to hold back all my dark ”. For an ostensible love song, it’s fascinating to hear the song’s narrator dwell on these questions of sin and virtue. The song itself constantly floats in between relative majors and minors, as if to underline the split between agony and ecstasy taken up in its story. “Jesus” is also where we begin to see Brand New’s sheer precision at work. The song is as at once heavy as stone and fragile as a robin’s egg, drummer Brian Lane offering a backbone of sturdy simplicity (bass-snare-bass-bass-snare) atop which Lacey and guitarist Vinnie Accardi weave a spiderweb of shimmering arpeggios, like lace draped over dark marble.
The gossamer fragility of “Jesus” is all the more surprising since the album’s opening suite of “Sowing Season” and “Millstone” is so absolute in its quiet-LOUD explosiveness. “Sowing Season” arrives with a whisper and a single, spare guitar, adding only a bit of extra harmony (another set of arpeggios) before, with a clarion “YEAH!”, bursting into absolute bombast. The album uses this trick a lot, both because it works so well (Lacey and company are very clearly students of Nirvana, evinced by both their general aura of romanticized self-loathing, and for the sneaky-catchy likes of “Degausser”, which boasts the kind of “this shouldn’t be a hook” instincts that made In Utero a classic) and because it best illustrates the enveloping darkness and oceanic mood-swings at the heart of these stories. Indeed, it is to the credit of producer Mike Sapone that the band is able to find so many different ways to deliver these sudden downpours (the way the grand finale of “Luca” comes mid-sentence is especially nifty). The chorus of “Sowing Season”, for its part, consists solely of a shouted “Yeah!” (with the exception of a screamed bridge, wherein Lacey and Accardi strikingly sing “Before you put my body in the cold ground / Take some time and warm it with your hands” – more death and intimacy), but the impact speaks volumes, especially the way it interrupts thoughts like “Somebody threw that brick / Shattered all your plans”. Every time Brand New bursts into widescreen uproar, it indeed sounds like another character shattering.
“Degausser” echoes the basic schema of “Sowing Season”, adding a bit of mass to its verses (most notably, an excellent, flinty bassline from Garrett Tierney) but still keeping its full density hidden until the band can respond to its eerily sing-songy pre-chorus: “Take apart your head / Chew it up and swallow it”. This happens regularly on The Devil and God – melodies of surprising sweetness used to deliver notions of absolute bile. Elsewhere, once again in a woozy croon that borrows from Morrissey but subtracts the Wilde-esque irony, Lacey intones “Now some saint’s got the job of writing down my sins / The storm is coming, the storm is coming in”. More piety and venality; more light and dark. If fits of hush and cacophony are one key pillar holding up The Devil and God, than the unnerving effects Brand New wrings from the album’s prettiest moments are another. The warmth and lightness of “Jesus” with its troubled thoughts about human nature; the sheer tunefulness of the otherwise tortured “Degausser”; the immaculate, silvery acoustics of “Luca”, a song that climbs atop of a spiral staircase of minor chords as Lacey murmurs “When I disappear it is clear I am up to no good” – all are lovely, all are the stuff of nightmares.
The same must certainly be said for “Limousine (MS Rebridge)”, to this day the most ambitious and the most acutely upsetting song in Brand New’s oeuvre. Delivered via the perspectives of multiple characters, the song retells the true story of an accident on Long Island in which a drunk driver crashed into a limousine coming from a wedding, killing the young sister of the bride. The song winds its way from its ominous beginnings – once again just Lacey and a guitar, absolutely ghoulish once you know what the song is about and where its headed – to a long gathering explosion, made wholly wrenching by screeching jabs of noise, an impressionistic recreation of the tragedy that never gets easier to listen to, and indeed makes the entire album feel that much more fraught and disturbing. Yet the band seems to intuit that, by this, the fifth track on the album, we’ve already learned the whisper/shout strategy that typifies so much of The Devil and God. So when the song pivots into an absolutely gorgeous major key interlude (quite possibly the only moment of its kind on the entire record) the shock is very real and almost unbearably poignant – a sharpness of feeling made all the more staggering by the turn the song takes into the mind of the drunk driver: “Can I get myself out from underneath this guilt that will crush me? / And in the choir I saw our sad messiah / He was bored and tired of my laments / Said ‘I’d die for you one time but never again’”. It’s a moment that retains every bit of its shocking pathos even ten years later, the open wound that might explain in part why The Devil and God is likely equaled only by American Football in terms of the sheer fascination that surrounds it. The rest of the album is left churning in the wake of “Limousine”, and even its earliest moments (“I was losing all my friends / Was losing them to drinking and to driving”) are suddenly illuminated by the song’s sharp anguish.
The closest thing The Devil and God has to a moment of levity is non-album track “Fork and Knife”, and even that song’s major-key piano-led bounce is obscured by its dour (though moving) exploration of love and devotion in decay. Of the songs included in the 12-track final draft, only the relatively energized “Not The Sun” and “The Archers Bows Have Broken” (which, perhaps not coincidentally, sound an awful lot alike) recall the melodic punch and sturdy pop craft of Deja Entendu. Both have their share of hooks (especially “Archers”), both feature the rhythm section of Lane and Tierney offering the muscular fundamentals of Jawbox and Lacey and Accardi choosing carefully between snaking leads and sheets of distorted chords. Each song also has its moments of surprising revelation, “Not The Sun” with its sudden turn into a harmony-laden waltz; “Archers” with its continually blossoming chorus, which adds melodies and counter-melodies in its final run, until the whole thing turns sweet despite itself. In fact, “The Archers Bows Have Broken” is one of the album’s most subtle breakthroughs, since it’s the location of some of Brand New’s most subtle reinventions. If the symphonic construction of “Limousine” or the studio adventurousness of “Welcome to Bangkok” and “Untitled” figure as the LP’s most overt sonic evolutions, then “Archers” succeeds based on bringing all those new strengths to the outsized power-pop heft perfected three years earlier on “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows”. The song largely takes place over a martial drum roll – which shouldn’t work, but does. The way its central chorus asks the song’s sardonic question (“What did you learn tonight?”) makes for the album’s best bit of melody, wherein Lacey somehow bests the chorus of “Quiet Things” while also managing to hammer a sentence like “You’re shouting so loud, you barely joyous, broken thing” into a hook. When the band sheds the last of its patience and bulks up the songs outro with added guitars and a full, pounding drum-kit, the results are transcendent, even for a song that finds Brand New at its most snarling and acidic, calling out the hypocritical faux-piety of conservative “Christian” politicians: “You’re beating with a book everyone that book tells you to love”.
For Brand New, the meaning of The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me appears to lie precisely in that line: in the distinction Lacey and Accardi draw between sincerity and cynicism, between a wide-awake suffering and a narcotic obliviousness. The whiplash of so many of these songs underlines the difference, and so many of its characters are either shaken awake by revelation or torn apart suddenly by their own worst inner divisions. “‘You can only blame yourself’ is what I say”. Excepting the album-closing oddity that is “Handcuffs” — which recalls the looming disaster of Deja Entendu’s “Jaws Theme Swimming” and which offers its own answers in noting “It’s hard to be a better man when you’re still lying” – this is the closing sentiment of Brand New’s final album, and it speaks to a humanistic vision drastically different from that of Oberst (who remains the most salient peer for Lacey). Where Oberst found comfort and promise in a shared human experience that included guilt, hypocrisy, sin, and misdeeds, optimistically dreaming of floating above all that weight, Lacey’s best work painfully sinks beneath it. The band has entertained ocean imagery all along (growing up on an island will do that), but The Devil and God is where they figure out the multiple, Melvillian metaphor of a deep dark ocean. The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me is full of characters who go through hell in fearing that they might go to hell. The best the album can do by way of reassurance is to propose that there is at least a modicum of honor in suffering honestly, in being acutely aware of the devil that rages inside.