Album Review of "Science Fiction" by Brand New
Will This Hurt? Being on the Verge of a Breakthrough
This album's cover art depicts two girls jumping off a second-floor balcony, just about to hit the ground. The image reflects the theme of this album: when we make a leap into the darkness, we don’t really know if the result will be transcendence or disaster.
Genre: Alt Rock
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Science Fiction by Brand New
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Album Review: Science Fiction by Brand New
Will This Hurt? Being on the verge of a breakthrough
This is a transcript of Ep. 9 of the What's This Album About? podcast - listen here
Hi everybody! You’re listening to What’s This Album About?. I’m Bobby Waller, and this episode is dedicated to Science Fiction, the new album by the band called Brand New.
This is the track called “Can’t Get It Out.” It’s one of the two highest-selling songs from Science Fiction, and it’s the song that has been analyzed by critics probably more than any other song on the album--and for good reason. Of all the songs on the album, it’s probably the clearest articulation of Science Fiction’s central theme.
But before we look at “Can’t Get It Out” in depth, let me be explicit about what that central theme is.
Brand New’s Science Fiction is an album about anticipating a breakthrough. It’s about the state of mind that precedes (but does not yet constitute) genuine wellbeing. It’s about being able to envision your way out of the suffering that so frequently characterizes human life even while you are still very much enmired in that suffering.
That’s the claim. And now, as evidence to that effect, I submit to you…
Exhibit A: “Can’t Get It Out”
Brand New has often been called an emo band because of the darkness in both their sounds and their lyrical content. And there’s certainly no shortage of that darkness on Science Fiction.
In "Can’t Get It Out," lead singer/songwriter Jesse Lacey—or at least the narrator he voices in this song—cites depression as the source of his shame and stress.
♪ I guess that’s just depression…
But what makes Science Fiction different from most of Brand New’s previous efforts is the way it tempers darkness with an eye to the light. In “Can’t Get it Out”’s final chorus, Lacey asserts that he is more than just depressed.
♪ Not just a manic depressive
toting around my own cloud
I’ve got a positive message
sometimes I can’t get it out.
The label “manic depressive” is inadequate to describe Lacey because it connotes only the negative sides of his character. But he’s more than that. He’s actually got a positive message; he just can’t get it out. Or, to put it in terms of the main claim I’m defending here, he’s on the verge of a healthier—or at least more livable—expression of himself, but he’s not quite there yet.
It’s a theme that’s reiterated over and over again on Science Fiction. Take for example…
Exhibit B: “Lit Me Up”
The track labeled "Lit Me Up" begins, not as a song, but as a spoken-word piece. We hear eerie ambient noises, and then what appears to be a vintage tape recording of a psychiatrist’s case notes.
“This tape recounts a dream which occurred close to the termination of approximately 400 hours of intensive individual therapy…”
Followed by the voice of the patient herself:
“The dream is that I’m..I’m like at a convention or something and there are all different kinds of meetings going on, stuff on experimental psych and therapy. While I…I don’t mind having all this going on inside of me, it’s sort of, I think I am going to be relieved when it’s over and I can sort of settle back down.’
By making this recording the very first thing listeners hear on Science Fiction, Brand New is signifying to the audience that this album is about being on the cusp of a breakthrough after years of living in a damaged psychological state. The therapist tells us not only that the patient has undergone a long and intense course of therapy but also that that course of therapy is about to end—presumably because the patient has made progress. And the patient herself tells us she looks forward to all this therapy ending and to a time when she can settle back down.
And just in case we didn’t get the point, it’s reiterated when the song finally kicks in.
The lyrics begin with the darkness:
♪ It’s where you live, but you don’t know how it’s built
If we’re just dust, then it doesn’t matter who you kill
Life is dark for Lacey, and that is at least partially because the world itself is a dark place. Science Fiction is full of references to the evil, ugliness , emptiness, and desperation of human existence. The song titled “137,” for example, reminds us of the continuing threat nuclear war poses to human existence.
♪ Let’s all go play Nagasaki
We can all get vaporized
And the song titled “Desert” is written from the perspective of an alt right homophobe who would rather kill his own son than to see him give in to the “bleeding hearts” he imagines are poised for invasion.
♪ Don’t come running to me when they’re coming for you
Don’t come running to me when they’re coming for you
But at the end of “Lit Me Up,” we once again find hope that there can be a light in all this darkness.
♪ I want to put my hands to work ’til the work’s done
I want to open up my heart like the ocean
The world may be cruel, but Lacey envisions himself “working ’til the work’s done.” He wants to make it better. And the thing that will let that happen is the opening of his own vast heart.
Exhibit C: The Album Cover
The theme of being on the verge of a breakthrough (but not quite there) is evident not only in Science Fiction’s lyrics but also on the album cover.
It features a photo by Swedish artist Thobias Faldt, and it depicts two young women—or maybe girls—who have just jumped off the railing of a second-floor balcony, which I estimate to be about 20 feet above the sidewalk. They are dressed in miniskirts, and look like they might be teenagers breaking free from their parents’ custody for a night on the town. The young woman who is closest to making contact with the pavement has her right foot extended as if she is going to land on only one leg, and I can’t help but cringe at the thought of her breaking her ankle. The young woman above her seems dangerously high up in the air and has her arms and legs spread somewhat awkwardly—not evenly—like she is not really in control of her fall.
The picture reminds us that this state of being on the verge of a breakthrough is not a comfortable state. It’s a precarious one. Because when we make that leap into the darkness, we don’t really know if the result will be transcendence or disaster. It is, after all, a leap of faith.
Exhibit D: The Surprise Release
“Well, I’ve guess you’ve noticed something a little strange with dad.”
The clip you’re hearing right now is from Steven Spielberg’s 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I’m playing it because of its tie to the bizarre way Brand New released Science Fiction.
On August 17th of this year , Brand New unexpectedly mailed 500 advance copies of Science Fiction to select people on the album’s pre-order list. It arrived on a plain, unadorned disc that included all the cuts from the album consolidated into a single 61-minute track and labeled as “44.5902N104.7146W,” which, as it turns out, are the coordinates for the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming—a distinctly shaped butte with a flat top and scalloped sides.
In the scene from Close Encounters that we just heard, Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, is at the dinner table with his family and fashions his mashed potatoes into the shape of Devil’s Tower.
“I can’t describe it, what I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. This means something.”
Unbeknownst to Roy, obsession with that shape has been implanted in his brain by aliens from outer space who want him to attend their first official encounter with scientists and governments of Earth, an encounter which is scheduled to happen at the Devil’s Tower. Roy knows this obsession means something—and something big—but he does not yet know what.
“How come I know so much? What the hell is going on around here?”
In short, he finds himself in the mental state that Brand New’s album is all about. He’s on the verge of a breakthrough, poised for a great awakening, but until he gets there, he’s like the young women on the cover of the album—precariously positioned on the cusp of either freedom or ruination. It could go either way.
And now, let’s bring this all back home—back to the music—with…
Exhibit E: “Waste”
I want to end this episode of What’s This Album About? with the song titled “Waste”—for two reasons.
One is that it further supports my claim that Science Fiction is all about being on the verge of a breakthrough. It evokes the sadness and desperation that accompanies the wonton abuse of drugs for escapism.
♪ Every night you were tripping out
in the morning you were coming down
But, despite the general darkness of the lyrics, here again we find hope that the light can be seen.
♪ Don’t lose hope, my son. This is the last one.
…that this will be the last trip, and after this, there will be no more reckless escapism.
And the other reason I want to end with this song is because of an album reaction video I saw on YouTube. It’s by a fan who calls herself thehaleysofar. She recorded herself listening to Science Fiction and then edited her reactions down to a seven minute and 19 second video. When she got to this line:
♪ This is the last one.
She reacted like this:
“It’s their last one!”
My first thought was, “I don’t think that’s how Brand New intended that line to be heard. This is a song about substance abuse, not a song about how they’re never going to release another album.”
But, then again, members of Brand New have stated elsewhere that Science Fiction will indeed be their last album ever. So my second thought was, “Who knows? Maybe Hayley was right.” Brand New is a famously elusive band, and their songs are full of veiled meanings. Maybe “Waste” really is their way of saying goodbye to their fans.
At the very least, two things are clear: One is that the public has definitely been gobbling up Brand New’s latest offering as if it were a non-renewable resource. Within a week of its release, it shot to the #1 position Billboard’s Top 200 albums. And the other is that, if Science Fiction really is going to be Brand New’s last album, it will almost certainly go down in rock history as one of the best swan songs ever.
♪ Don’t give up my son, this is the last one
Thanks for listening to What’s This Album About?. This is a brand new podcast (pun intended) so any liking, commenting, sharing, or subscribing you care to do will be very useful and appreciated. We’re on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and you can also get a hold of me at WhatsThisAlbumAbout@gmail.com.
Until next time I’m Bobby Waller reminding you to look for the breakthrough. And keep your ears open because: