I’m not sure about this one. Truthfully, I feel very conflicted. Throughout almost the entirety of 2017 I had Brand New’s Science Fiction at my number two or three spot for album of the year. I listened to it constantly, more than any other record except my pick for number one. I bought tickets to go see them live at the O2 Academy in Brixton. And then the gig was cancelled and the band’s career almost instantly brought to an end by the sexual misconduct allegations levelled at frontman Jesse Lacey in November.
I wrote a lengthy blog post about the allegations and the business of public shame a couple of months ago, which I would like to point people towards here. But the end result of it all is a strange feeling I haven’t experienced in music before: disappointed idol-worship, or the realization that an artist you admire has done some really terrible, terrible things. It completely ruined my ability to enjoy old Brand New material, particularly Deja Entendu, the lyrics of which now read as the callous and self-obsessed confessions of an emotional abuser.
So where does that leave us with Science Fiction? Truthfully, I haven’t touched it since the stories about Lacey broke. I debated whether I should scratch it from the list entirely, but it wasn’t until I came to writing this review that I revisited the album in its entirety. Having done that, I’ve made the difficult decision (and one which I may regret later) to try and remove the music contained within Science Fiction as much as possible from the ugliness that surrounds it.
Part of the reason I feel able to do that is because Science Fiction feels, not just lyrically but in every way, like a maturation for the band. Lacey’s lyrics throughout are repentant in tone, but they aren’t self-serving in the way a song like ‘Me vs Maradona vs Elvis’ is. The picture it paints for me, and I am very hesitant of sounding like an apologist here, is one of a man who is more than aware of the fucked up things he has done, and is still dealing with the damage and the emotional implications of his actions.
Opener ‘Lit Me Up’ sounds, in retrospect, like a song directly about sex addiction. And it even portends the way Lacey’s public life and career have been devoured on social media and in the music press: ‘It lit me up, and I burned from the inside out / Yeah I burned like a witch in a puritan town’.
The first half of Science Fiction contains a running theme of therapy and psychodrama. Tracks are interspersed with ominous voice recordings of therapy sessions and recalled dreams, while lyrics are heavy with psychological strife. ‘Lit Me Up’ and ‘Can’t Get it Out’ are among the most atmospheric and immediate album openers of 2017, while the next three tracks chart a difficult path through self-harming, death and religious doubt.
If ‘Never Be Heaven’, a plodding and mopey acoustic ballad, is perhaps the album’s only misstep, then it only makes the catharsis all the stronger when the record reaches the explosive religious apocalypse of ‘137’, where Lacey imagines himself being immolated by an atom bomb as his band reach a furious climax. Then comes ‘Out of Mana’, the most brilliant and visceral rock song of the year, with an unforgettable but deliciously simple guitar riff in the chorus.
Science Fiction’s second half delivers track for track the best guitar music of the year, the band shifting from melancholy to manic with ease while writing some fantastic melodies. The harmonized vocals of ‘No Control’ are another highlight, as is the whisper-quiet finale ‘Batter Up’, a song that seems all too aware of its position at the close of a chapter, and the bittersweet sadness of ending: ‘It’s never going to stop / Batter up’.
Some will be glad to see Brand New come to an end in light of the allegations against Lacey. Many hardcore fans have had to make a difficult choice between rejection and reconciliation with the band’s music. For my part, I have chosen the latter only for Science Fiction because I think it is an honest record that approaches the problems with a great deal of humility and artistry. For some that won’t be enough, and I respect that. But whatever your opinion on Jesse Lacey and his actions, it’s hard to argue with the music on Science Fiction, which is simply some of the best 2017 had to offer.