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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Brand New: The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me

BRAND NEW: THE DEVIL AND GOD ARE RAGING INSIDE ME (2006)

1) Sowing Season (Yeah); 2) Millstone; 3) Jesus Christ; 4) Degausser; 5) Limousine; 6) You Won't Know; 7) Wel­come To Bangkok; 8) Not The Sun; 9) Luca; 10) Untitled; 11) Archers; 12) Handcuffs.

Emotional pain. It's actually a real thing, and most of us have probably experienced it — but the more I listen to 21st century music that got critical acclaim for allegedly bottling and conveying waves of emotional pain to the appreciative audience, the more I get the feeling — and yes, may­be I am alone on this, but I don't care — the feeling that somehow, at some elusive moment in time, musicians have simply lost the ability to express their emotional pain in music in a convin­cing manner. Horribly, it even leads me to suspect that they might have lost the ability to feel emotional pain like a perfectly ordinary, reasonable, sensitive human being could feel emotional pain. Is it stupid on my part? George Harrison, Roger Waters, Robert Smith, Michael Stipe, Aimee Mann, Beth Gibbons — they feel and convey emotional pain. But I have not yet felt a single properly bleeding heart from anyone whose musical career would be separated by more than two thousand years from the alleged birth of the greatest emotional sufferer of 'em all (did that sound grossly pathetic? I thought it sounded grossly pathetic).

Case study: The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me, a pretentious title that suggests bracing yourself as you push play — surely, with a statement like this, you can expect to be propelled head forward into the scary turbulence of the Greatest Emotional Drama ever. The light and the dark! The sin and the redemption! The suffering and the deliverance! The crime and the punish­ment! Jesse Lacey has grown up, matured, became initiated into the real serious issues of this world, and this is his take on the grim plight of the human race. The stakes are higher than ever before, and please expect a complete refund if you do not walk away from this experience a deep­ly changed man, with your whole life to rethink and brand new goals and promises to be made.

Unquestionably, in terms of overall development this album rises high above Your Favorite Weapon, and corrects some of the problems of Déjà Entendu. It is occasionally intriguing, far from always predictable, and sufficiently restrained in that the band does not come across as a bunch of annoying poseurs when you are forced to inhale their tragic psychologism. But the main issue remains the same: they just do not know. That is, according to my perspective: you will, of course, find plenty of dissenting opinions on how they totally blew the mind of some listener or other. I just wonder, in each such case, where and how exactly our emotional receptors have par­ted ways — finding it unimaginable that one could, for instance, experience the same kind of strong, heartfelt response for this album as one could for, say, The Cure's Disintegration.

So let us take a look at the singles first. ʽSowing Season (Yeah)ʼ, opening with a rather tedious minute-long section of overlapping phone chat recordings, is a nicely constructed alt-rock track that teaches us about the difficulties of building your life anew after it had been blown to pieces by some unimaginably horrific experiences. But the fact that Jesse Lacey did not, in fact, have all his relatives killed off in World War Two does not bother me as much as the fact that the transi­tion from the quiet verse section into the bombastic-climactic chorus simply does not have the (obviously intended) cathartic effect. The guitar riff that dominates the chorus is well constructed, but it is more math-rockish than emotionally involving, and the «wild» "yeah yeah"s that accom­pany it are puny and superficial compared to, say, Kurt Cobain's — now there was a guy who could crack a good "yeaaaaah" in such a way that you'd want to quickly call 911 to his place. La­cey's "yeah"s, on the other hand, can't help implying that... well, he'll get over it eventually.

The second single was ʽJesus Christʼ — and, well, even with atheism on a steady rise everywhere, you'd still want to think that choosing such a title imposes certain artistic obligations. And it is actually a good song — until they start to scream, that is. The little ringing guitar pattern, unori­ginal as it is, can mesmerize you a little with its steadiness, and the quiet atmosphere of the music goes very well with Jesse's tense, confessional singing, and there is a pretty restrained guitar solo, and the lyrics, dealing with insanity, death, and the afterlife, are intelligent... but then they just can't handle that crescendo — they just begin to scream, and it gets ugly without getting scary, and by the time they chant "we all got wood and nails and we turn out hate in factories", I have stopped being interested in the song. So sad, it started out so well.

On the non-singles material, they sometimes do better: top prize here goes to the nearly eight-minute epic ʽLimousineʼ, where the much lengthier crescendo fortunately succeeds — after a few rather mediocre minutes, they grasp a good groove, settle into a nice melancholic tonality, and work it out by adding layer after layer of guitars, keyboards, and even strings, rather than simply resorting to more of that ugly screaming. The "I love you so much / But do me a favor, baby, don't reply" bit and its development shows that they are at least randomly capable of gold mining, because there is romanticism here and tragedy and determination, regardless of whatever the actual message might be (actually, the song is about the accidental murder of a 7-year girl by a drunk driver), and plenty of subtlety and accuracy and thoroughness of arrangement. If it weren't for moments like these, the tables would have turned completely against the band — but the likes of ʽLimousineʼ show that they do have to be taken seriously, and that they do mature further and further with each new record. And that makes the numerous flaws of Devil And God even more infuriating against this background.

The hooky numbers, for instance, still tend to be spoiled by overemoting: thus, ʽNot The Sunʼ is designed as a somewhat «apocalyptic» rocker (its spirited intro, echoey produc­tion, and overall tone remind me, for some reason, of Hendrix's ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ) and even has some excellent guitar parts and a frantically tight rhythm section, but there's just too much emphasis on screaming again — an area in which Lacey is rarely convincing. ʽDegausserʼ sounds like a bad parody on Arcade Fire, replete with droning guitars, anthemic, but lackluster choir vocals, and soul­ful echoes — until the screaming comes in and drowns out all the associations in head-split­ting, but still boring loudness. And so on, and on, and on.

Honestly speaking, I would really like to love this album. At least, unlike quite a few other lazy hipsters who think that an understanding of «soul» excuses you from understanding the obsolete notion of «work», these guys are clearly trying — exploring many more types of textures here than they used to, writing complex lyrics that tend to avoid clichés, even displaying a healthy penchant for self-irony ("You're shouting so loud, you barely joyous broken thing / You're a voice that never sings" must be a self-reference, right?). It's just that almost everywhere they stop just one or two important steps away from greatness. Why not flesh out the hooks more? Why not work out the guitar figures better? Why not refrain from screaming in favor of a more subtle ap­proach (especially if they are capable of subtlety)? Is it because they are unable to have feelings that can be transposed to such kinds of hooks, or do they just not know how to transpose?

In the end, no matter how much I listen, the only thing that stays with me is the repetitive, mildly hypnotizing coda to ʽLimousineʼ, and I have but to constatate that the ambitiousness, although it does not destroy the record as a whole, does not pay off. I cannot agree that the Devil and God are raging anywhere inside this album — at best, they may have sent a couple of their lesser de­puties. Nice level of cultural erudition, but that's hardly sufficient foundation for an emotional masterpiece. Then again, who knows, maybe it's just my grumpy bias speaking up.

11 comments:

  1. Arcade Fire didn't properly convey emotional pain to you on Funeral? Because your review of that album would suggest otherwise.

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    1. That would probably be the closest case, yes, maybe that "single" exception, but even so I actually like Arcade Fire more when they're "angry" than when they're "suffering".

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  2. >Why not refrain from screaming in favor of a more subtle ap­proach (especially if they are capable of subtlety)?

    It's the absurd post-Cobain deification of the teenaged that's somehow permeated "alternative" rock.

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  3. I would say that The National are very adept at conveying emotional pain, but you'll probably disagree with me, George. They really do it for me, though.

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  4. I strongly recommend you listen the last year's Hotelier record, George. I'm not a big emo fan and didn't see what the big deal was with this record, but "Home Like No Place Is There" is really powerful, well sung and executed. It was my top record from 2014. Give it a spin if you can.

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  5. I'll hand it to you George -- if I was running this site I wouldn't have the patience or stomach to subject myself to this emo garbage, let alone all of Britney Spears' albums. Mister, you're a better man than I.

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  6. "the feeling that somehow, at some elusive moment in time, musicians have simply lost the ability to express their emotional pain in music in a convin­cing manner."

    I will go for 1997 as that elusive moment, but I won't go into my reasoning for that now. I'm mulling over the above statement, yet another astute example of your "old school" summations that encapsulates in a sentence an explanation for why I quit listening to "modern" music around the same time as the above date. I think it's the emotional atmosphere that the young folk are raised in these days. They're told: "Feel your feelings, talk or act it out, be yourself, and if you do a really good job at relaying your drama, you might get a viral video on Youtube." Back in the day, we were told to shut up and get over it, take it like a man, etc. So we learned a more nuanced emotional language. Thanks to the aforementioned Mr. Cobain, kids learned that dysfunction=f***ed up=playing quiet then playing f***ing loud. They learned the musical lexicon of Zeppelin and the Ramones without getting the proper grammar and syntax that drove those bands--if I may use a linguistic metaphor. They had the noise and the riffs without the expression. And god forbid you actually played a solo.

    Then writers learned lyrical imagery over content. They try to be clever, speaking in grotesque metaphors, but it ends up sounding obscure and confused. I end up not caring, because they're screaming everything to be heard, but end up being noisy whiners.

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    1. I'm sorry, but fuck this shit. No, things were not better "back in the day" because you were told to "shut up and get over it."

      I'm a millennial, and honestly, I prefer more "classic" stuff in general. But Brand New's shortcomings, whatever they may be, are not indicative of an entire generation.

      Yeah, we're nite immediate with our emotions. We confront them more quickly and less abstractly. That doesn't make us worse people.

      Just because you don't like the music we produce, because of our more recent musical influences, doesn't make us worse on a moral level. Stop applying broad moral generalizations to us, you pretentious, stuck up jackass.

      This is directed at the author of this topic, not George.

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    2. More* not nite

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  7. It's too bad George is done with the "A" bands. I wonder what he would think of American Football. They're the only emo band I can imagine him liking; not much screaming and an emphasis on hooks and melodies. Definitely an oddball among emo bands of the era, although nowadays a lot of "emo revival" bands are aping their math-rock guitar lines.

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