Brand New’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me blew up teen angst to literally biblical proportions, resonating like no emo band before or since to outcasts in Sunday school and high school.
At the turn of the century, emo had finally gone pop, but hadn’t felt like music for popular kids. On Clear Channel playlists, “The Middle” and “Screaming Infidelities” were boyish, bashful contrast to the goateed bullies of nu-grunge and rap-metal and the New Rock Revival’s trouser-stuffing sexuality. But while Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional were extensions of the church basement and DIY house scenes that fostered Christie Front Drive, the Get Up Kids, and the Promise Ring, they would soon be overtaken by the likes of Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, and plenty of bands who were basically jocks in ringer T’s: they were loud, rude, and thought about little other than sex. The Long Island band’s 2001 debut Your Favorite Weapon helped establish the sound and the gender politics for a time when emo would draw in more fans of both sexes than ever before, but often cleared the room of people who expected punk rock to be a welcoming or progressive environment. To this day, “Emo Night” most likely means drunken 20-somethings yelling along with “Jude Law and a Semester Abroad.”
After the potent but obnoxious venting of Your Favorite Weapon,Brand New’s ambitions started to emerge two years later on Deja Entendu—they hired a guy who engineered Pixies records to produce it, wrote the acoustic weeper “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot” to prove they’d heard the Smiths, and added a guitar soloon “Good to Know That if I Ever Need Attention All I Have to Do is Die” that veered so close to “Hotel California” it proved they’d probably never heard the Eagles. But frontman Jesse Lacey still inhabited a stunted, vindictive emotional viewpoint—even as he spent considerable time staring at an empty bottle, ruefully recounting the failure of copious sex and substances to provide him with any lasting happiness, he was just as quick to boast about a lifestyle that let him basically fuck and drink however much he wanted: “I wouldn’t stop if I could/Oh it hurts to be this good,” he admitted on “Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t.” His flexing and his self-loathing were both forms of the same narcissism: In this way, he was almost proto-Drake.
Brand New jumped from Triple Crown to Interscope after Deja Entendu, and no one would’ve been surprised if major-label money and expectations would’ve caused Lacey to go even deeper into his vices. But based on the ensuing Fight Off Your Demons demos, Lacey was at least willing to make an effort to be the better man. “Brother’s Song” and “1996” were worldly and warm, allowing someone else’s story to be told for once. But this embryonic version of Brand New’s third album was leaked by overzealous fans (and sold back to them a decade later), causing a disillusioned and emotionally violated Lacey to retreat inward again. By the time The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me was completed, he may have realized that the world didn’t revolve around him—but he was now the dark center of the universe, a howling spiritual void.
Theology had always played an under-appreciated role in emo’s development. In fact, the golden era of emo was often praise music: witness the effect of Jeremy Enigk’s born-again Christianity on How It Feels to Be Something On, the exaltation of Mineral’s “Gloria,” or the existence of overtly denominational labels like Tooth & Nail. Even skeptics like David Bazan and Aaron Weiss could still quote scripture through their struggles. Besides, the mid-2000’s was a time when rock music of many stripes reasserted its faith: 2004 alone gave us Pedro the Lion’s Achilles Heel and mewithoutYou’s Catch for Us the Foxes, as well as the proudly Mormon Brandon Flowers, “Jesus Walks,” and Seven Swans. But while emo had previously been defined by passionate vocalists, desperately pleading to the heavens for salvation, Lacey was telling Jesus Christ not to bother— “I’m scared I’ll get scared and I swear I’ll try to nail you back up.”
It’s teen angst blown up to literally biblical proportions, resonating like no emo band before or since to outcasts in Sunday school andhigh school. But as sure as Brand New is an emo band, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me is not an emo record. It might actually be post-emo: “Was losing all my friends, was losing them to drinking and to driving,” Lacey mutters with unsettling resignation on the album’s first lyric. He sounds no more relieved to say in the next line, “Was losing all my friends, but I got ‘em back.” Whereas Lacey once took great pride in his ability to turn even the smallest slights into voluble LiveJournal status updates (“my tongue’s the only muscle in my body that works harder than my heart”), The Devil and God is often a dispassionate eulogy for that version of himself and his silly little feelings: “I used to be such a burning example,” “I used to care I was being careful,” “goodbye to love.”
To some degree, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me can be classified as soulless—albeit “soulless” as an aesthetically powerful narrative choice. Positive reviews of The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me likened Brand New to Radiohead and Modest Mouse—“Limousine (MS Rebridge)” is loosely modeled after “Exit Music (For a Film),” but Radiohead comparisons often serve as generic shorthand for “ambitious, brooding alternative rock.” The latter reference presumably referred to the band’s newfound affinity for whammy-bar harmonics and The Moon & Antarctica’s permafrost ambience, particularly on “Jesus.” In fact, the band had originally started working with Dennis Herring, who produced Modest Mouse’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News, an unexpected commercial success that put them in a position to share a co-headlining bill with Brand New this past year.
But Lacey is soulless in a way that recalls Thom Yorke on Kid A and Isaac Brock on The Moon & Antarctica—these are narrators who have lost something substantial, who have been separated from their physical being and seem to be staring down at a Sim-version of themselves. “I’m not here, this isn’t happening,” Yorke moaned, while Brock asked, “Does anybody know a way for a body to get away?” A seriously unnerving performance of “Jesus” on “Late Night with David Letterman” presents Lacey as a spiritual husk, and there are Easter egg references to the cover art of Deja Entendu as an avatar for his former self: “this bedwetting cosmonaut,” “space cadet, pull out.”
The Devil and God even sounds soulless. Despite being on Interscope’s dime, the band ran out of time and money while working with Herring and switched to “fifth member” Mike Sapone, responsible for the functional, nondescript mainstreamo sound of Your Favorite Weapon. And yet the same cold, clinical production is responsible for The Devil and God’s unusual and appropriate atmosphere. At no point does Lacey sound suicidal —in fact, he sounds resigned to living (“Do you feel condemned just being there?”).
While The Devil and God touches on Nirvana, Joy Division, and Elliott Smith, it doesn’t attempt to conjure those artists’ specific psychosomatic distresses, whether through dyspeptic churn, epileptic terror, or catatonic depression. Lacey begs for divine retribution, and some of the most bludgeoning dynamics you’ll hear on a modern rock record deliver it. The added percussion on “Millstone” conveys metal-on-bone trauma, while instrumental “Welcome to Bangkok” could pass for an interstitial from The Seer.
But The Devil and God is defined by its crippling “drops”—the chorus on “Sowing Season (Yeah)” plays on textbook Pixies-style explosiveness, but the full-band crashes on “Limousine,” “You Won’t Know,” and especially “Luca” are completely unexpected, the kind that cause convulsions at your desk or a swerve off the road. There isn’t a single warm or welcoming texture, just expanses of dulled existence and the brutal punishment Lacey so vehemently feels he deserves.
But what exactly has he done? On Deja Entendu’s shockingly callous “Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis” (Brand New’s own “Marvins Room”), Lacey coldly copped to his “desperate desires and unadmirable plans” but gave himself an out by presenting it all as a hypothetical (“if you let me have my way, I swear I’d tear you apart”). He wasn’t the only guy in this realm passing off non-apologetic psychosexual reckoning as introspection at the time. This mode of songwriting often made for compelling gossip, but limited Brand New’s scope to things that actually happened to Jesse Lacey.
Freed from the constraints of autobiography, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me allows Brand New to inhabit far more frightening mindsets, both real and fictional; similar to Sufjan Stevens’ “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” a murderer’s heinous actions become a philosophical exercise, daring the listener to really consider whether they can empathize and see their own worst impulses made real. “Luca” takes its name from Vito Corleone’s most barbaric consigliere, one who impregnated an Irish prostitute, murdered her, and then strongarmed the midwife into burning a child in a furnace. On “Limousine (MS Rebridge)” and “You Won’t Know,” Lacey invokes the appalling death of 7-year old Katie Flynn, killed by a man driving the wrong way down Meadowbrook Parkway in Long Island with a .28 BAC, hours after being a flower girl at her aunt’s wedding.
As alluded to in “Sowing Season,” too many of Lacey’s friends, and perhaps himself included, could have been Martin Heidgen, the man behind the wheel, and The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Mehinges on the conclusion that the willingness to sin is equal to actual sin if you’re subject to judgment from an omnipotent being. Lacey’s verse from the perspective of Heidgen ends as a half-assed plea for mercy from an unsalvageable human being who knows exactly what he is: “I saw our sad messiah/He was bored and tired of my laments/Said, ‘I’d die for you one time but never again’,” Lacey sings, drawing the parallel between Heidgen’s earthly verdict and the one Lacey expects when he meets his maker.
The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me rarely admits to much, diametrically opposed to melodramatic oversharing and tabloid exploits of Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, and My Chemical Romance that defined emo in the MySpace era. This was all very risky in 2006, especially for a band making its major label debut. Though critically acclaimed, the less enthusiastic reviews balked at the portentous epics and wished for more of the scorched-sugar rush of Deja Entendu. It’s not unwarranted; underwritten lyrics occasionally cut against the sober sonics (“Life is a test and I get bad marks”), and there’s just enough radio-friendly spite to remind the listener of the sound Brand New had grown out of. “Not the Sun” strains to extrapolate sexual denial into hellish spiritual immolation, while the broadly political and triumphant “The Archers Bows Have Broken” is an awkward fit within the otherwise insular and defeatist The Devil and God, especially as it leads into the nihilistic despondence of closer “Handcuffs.”
Neither of those immediately accessible tracks were released as singles. Preliminary interviews were scarce and often with obscure, non-American publications (“in the States, you get misrepresented…the headline would end up being something stupid like ‘We hate My Chemical Romance,’” Lacey complained). Given a late-November release date unusual for non-marquee acts, The Devil and God peaked at #31 on Billboard, neither a flop nor a resounding success.
Ten years ago today, Brand New were supporting The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me on the road with Dashboard Confessional. Starting next week, they’ll be playing 15,000-cap arenas in the UK. The explanation isn’t simply, “they made The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me.” Its effect on Brand New itself feels difficult to quantify and certainly not immediate: while 2009’s Daisy debuted in the top ten, it fell out after six weeks with little impact, its reception amongst critics and Brand New fans decidedly mixed. Though it’s not Brand New’s worst album, it’s certainly the one the least number of Brand New fans would say is their best.
But their status as one of the most popular cult bands is more attributable to what they didn’t do after Daisy. Some of the presumed trolling behind Brand New’s current mythology might just be due to administrative errors or a desire to tie up loose ends before their maybe, maybe-not 2018 breakup: the liner notes for The Devil and God contained no lyrics, but an invitation to send one dollar for a booklet. Nine years later, fans were finally receiving them. And while their peers became overexposed or uninspired, Brand New’s continued insistence to let their fans speak for them created one of the loudest echo chambers going—“The Complete Guide to Brand New’s Comeback Album,” “Tunnelling Down the Brand New Wormhole,” “Brand New Came Up With a New Way to Mess With You Today,” “Brand New Just F*cking With Us at This Point,” this is all substantial Brand New LP5 reportage. By leaving his words and intentions open to interpretation, Lacey unwittingly shifted from a minor celebrity to a generational voice.
For the most part, Brand New played the role of a principled, popular rock act that felt very uncomfortable with their position as spokespeople. There hasn’t been one like this in a very, very long time. The marginalization of rock music in the 21st century actually benefits a band like Brand New, as it pushes together potentially incompatible subsets of listeners. These days, Brand New have enough clout to play shows with their heroes in Built to Spill and Modest Mouse, but in 2006, most of their attempts to place themselves within a counterculture lineage somehow went unnoticed: the cover art for the “Jesus” single is a blatant homage to Jesus Lizard’s Goat, the title of The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me is an obscure reference to Daniel Johnston. And when Brand New really tried to make their own answer to In Utero with Daisy, Lacey was namedropping Fugazi, Polvo and Archers of Loaf as formative influences.
But Vinnie Accardi, the guitarist who co-wrote most of Daisy, mentioned Stone Temple Pilots’ Core and Alice in Chains’ Jar of Fliesas his touchstones. And Brand New’s ability to hit the cheap seats—the first two choruses on Devil and God are “yeah” and “whoa”—make their discomfort and recalcitrance with their heralded status compelling rather than a matter of fact. At a point where most rock acts are going out of their way to ingratiate themselves with their audience and reach across aisles, Lacey screams “I am not your friend, I’m not your lover, I’m not your family,” and it’s weirdly comforting to affirm him, with a blood-curdling YEAH. Brand New died for emo one time, but never again.