Deja Entendu (Vinyl Reissue)
by Chad Jewett
Twelve years later, and Brand New’s Deja Entendu still exists on an island. In 2003 the album seemed to come from nowhere, neither resembling the adolescent pop-punk of the Long Island band’s debut (Your Favorite Weapon), nor really reflecting the goldrush milieu of emo that surrounded it. Outside of a rumored cold war between Brand New and fellow Long Islanders Taking Back Sunday, there wasn’t even much to link those bands, otherwise the closest emo will likely ever get to “Oasis vs. Blur” (prickly and cerebral, Brand New ends up being the “Blur” in that equation). Another touchstone might be Cursive’s The Ugly Organ, released earlier that same year and similarly bent on making infectious, dark pop from stories of awful people. Except that where The Ugly Organ goes baroque, Deja Entendu leans on darkly romantic acoustic swoons and spiky post-hardcore.
Oddly enough, Deja’s closest historical kin at the time might have been The Postal Service’s Give Up – the other album that surfaced, without fail, over the P.A. between bands at punk clubs, that drifted from the car windows in the parking lots of VFW shows. Give Up grafted DNA from The Human League, New Order, and Pet Shop Boys but still sounded arrestingly new. Similarly, you could trace some of what Brand New must have had in mind (Pinkerton; Foo Fighters; Strangeways, Here We Come) but never quite see how the math worked. And even though The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me — Brand New’s labored over follow-up to Deja — seemed to be dead-set on atoning for the sins and venality that the previous album reveled in, Devil & God is a tangibly darker, more reclusive record, guilt-ridden and almost opaque, more a conceptual sequel than an actual one. There was seemingly no going back to the weird alchemy with which Brand New turned angry, cynical stories into captivating guitar pop.
The years since have turned Brand New into mysterious figures with a cult following, and the occasion for this review – a new vinyl reissue of Deja Entendu – has been anxiously awaited for years. Twelve years is an odd anniversary, but a welcome one for trying to get a hold of what makes the LP special, especially as, with the release of new single “Mene”, the band seems to be gearing up for another album cycle. The most interesting thing about revisiting Deja Entendu, over a decade later, is seeing the unexpected ways that the record has grown: what songs, ideas, and sounds have ripened into fine vintage, and what moments have aged like milk. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the ways that Brand New would lean into the most quixotic and challenging pockets of their sound on Devil & God and the whittled, more hardcore-leaning Daisy, it’s the most nuanced, even experimental corners of Deja that now resurface as the album’s best.
“Jaws Theme Swimming” and “Me Vs. Maradona Vs. Elvis” — two songs stuck dead in the middle of the record’s back half – feel especially revelatory, even brilliant. “Jaws Theme Swimming” in particular, with its wiry, waltz-timed lilt and a hushed vocal from Jesse Lacey, emerges as a clever, elliptical tour de force. A lot of Deja Entendu hammers away at its themes with toothy relish, but “Jaws Theme” is subtle and slinky, full of open space and nicely anchored by Garrett Tierney’s syncopated, gummy bass (especially in a nifty walking pre-chorus riff) and some carefully applied harmonies. There’s an aura of anxiety that floats across the entire album (think of the nervous sweat of “Sic Transit Gloria” or the Lacey’s panic-attack vocal on “I Will Play My Game Beneath The Spin Light”), but “Jaws Theme Swimming” sneaks up on you, its details more impressionistic (“When it got old outside, smoke beneath the playground lights / If you’re coming home, just let me know”), populating a worried, late night world with impressive nuance. The song earns its name – placid on the surface, with just the hint of a looming undertow.
“Me Vs. Maradona Vs. Elvis” similarly gains from its patience and its roominess, built from just a single, wavering guitar and Lacey’s voice, modeling the song’s troubling mix of cynicism and isolation (“I will lie awake…”) until it finally blossoms into a late coda, big chords falling like sheets. The LP makes steady use of a certain “quiet-quiet-quiet-LOUD” strategy throughout, but the weary, cascading final movement of “Me Vs. Maradona” wears it best. Ultimately, both “Maradona” and “Jaws Theme” seem like expanded echoes of the album-opening mood music of “Tautou”, a brief, slowcore intro of shimmering, free-form guitars that might actually be the most influential tract of the album (you can, for instance, hear the song’s astral swoon in The World Is A Beautiful Place or Balance & Composure). Like the album’s later, longer songs, “Tautou” trusts its own aura, and now, a decade on, the intro only feels too short. Its hazy, absorbing ambiance is one of the defining traits of Deja Entendu.
On the vinyl reissue, “Jaws Theme Swimming” begins the album’s second half, and it’s a handy dividing line, breaking the record into a singles-oriented opening section and a more ambient, oblique denouement. “Guernica” and the ponderously titled “Good To Know That If I Ever Need Attention All I Have To Do Is Die” figure the album at its most barbed and angular, the former rolling in on Deftones crunch as the latter unspools in a syrupy haze, spare riffs drooping in the song’s slow-phase humidity. It’s all the more surprising that both pivot into broad, tuneful choruses, especially “Guernica”, which, despite its stylized gloom, comes the closest to recalling Your Favorite Weapon with its fleet, punchy hook. And while the song’s slightly plodding verses make “Guernica” feel longer than its three-and-a-half-minutes, the giddy punch of its final pre-chorus, delivered in a sepia, sing-song whisper (“Does anybody remember back when you were very young…”) that suddenly booms into one last refrain is one of the album’s finest moments, still a thrill a dozen years on.
If the latter end of Deja Entendu has ended up benefiting from its subtlety and nuance, then the album’s early stretch is forced to compete with overfamiliarity. “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” remains iconic, with Lacey affecting a Morrissey croon over a span of outsized pop-punk. The song has smart touches: a memorable call-and-response chorus; a shape-shifting central riff layered under the hook; a call back to the song’s opening guitar figure in a florid, whispery bridge – small but clever filigree that convinced you the band had something more going on. “The Quiet Things” reminds you of all the clumsier stuff Brand New could get away with (the song’s late, abrupt chorus pause, for example, has a longer history in hair metal than it does in literate punk) because, added up, even their pop songs brimmed with ideas.
Time has been less kind to the tart, ironic ego trips of “I Will Play My Game Beneath The Spin Light” and “Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t” (especially in the wake of imitations by Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco), even if there’s still pleasure to be found in the dry, spartan first half of “Tommy Gun”, just a single, ticking guitar and Lacey at his most arch. Simply put, the band is both more convincing and — more importantly — more interesting when exploring the troubling fall-out of imperfect human beings than it is in pretending to glean impish fun from them, which might help explain why Devil & God will likely end up wearing its years better. Consequently, it’s now the most earnest parts of Deja Entendu that prove most affecting. We so often see Lacey’s characters either delighting in their own venom or drowning in their own melancholy that it’s both welcome and moving to see the singer in the thoughtful, outward mode of “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot”. And even if, as is so often the case with emo, the track is ultimately a love-song entirely filtered through narcissism (“If it makes you less sad, I will die by your hand / I hope you find out what you want. / I already know what I am”) there is still a loveliness to the track’s shimmering, pastoral indie-pop. One can find unassuming poetry in lines like “You are calm and reposed / Let your beauty unfold” or “You’re the smell before rain”.
As a collection of production choices, Deja Entendu becomes a fascinating artifact, at times stopped-up with gloss, at others admirably weird for what felt at the time like a grab for the brass ring. For every effects-pedal misstep like the plastic-y leads on “The Quite Things That No One Ever Knows” or the tinny distortion of “Guernica” there’s the finely-sculpted soundscape of “Tautou” or the judicious sonic balancing act of “Jaws Theme Swimming.” The flinty groove at the heart of “Sic Transit Gloria…Glory Fades” (a Rushmore reference for a song about post-adolescent panic) still works, even if the cramped, over-compressed roar of its chorus doesn’t. Added up, Deja Entendu is just about the clearest Brand New have sounded, less murky and shadowed than Devil & God, less taken with sheer density than Daisy. It’s just that that clarity is occasionally matched to studio gambles that show their age.
Ultimately, we’re now at the point where the album’s sardonic title, French for “Already Heard”, isn’t just a dig at the turgid current of early-to-mid-2000s punk and emo – it now speaks for many people’s relationship with the album. Like Through Being Cool or Lifted or Full Collapse (or any other album in this general milieu), it’s exceedingly difficult to hear Deja Entendu. You just sort of consume it as fifty minutes of instinct, like all the familiar streets that get you back to the house you grew up in. The trick is to listen to Deja as both a classic of its time and place – an utterly essential document of turn-of-the-millennium emo – and as a step towards the more difficult territory of The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me and Daisy.