‘Brand New’ and the Ethics of Redemption

By Owen Fereday

Album Review: The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me by Brand New

Genre(s): Alternative Rock/Emo/Post-Hardcore

“The fact remains that none of us get to put a wall up between who we are and who we were. I need to earn forgiveness. Concepts like repentance, compassion, and love, are made real through actions, and it’s through my actions that I need to prove change. I hope I can show humility, and that the pain I have caused people can heal. I am not above reproach, and no one should be”- Jesse Lacey.

I first want to preface this review by saying that I am not a Christian, nor am I in any way religious. The reason I bring this up is because the album I wish to review here interacts heavily with the themes of religion (specifically Christianity) and, in particular, of redemption: both of which I, as a non-religious person, still found interesting and which caused some questions to be raised in my own mind. The last thing I would want is for other non- religious people to see that I will be discussing religious topics and immediately lose interest, because I feel this album has much more to offer thematically than just a message for the religious. That is why I am going to focus on these themes in this review, as opposed to talking about the musical quality (needless to say I think it’s great music and that seems to be the general critical consensus). Specifically, I aim to use Jesse Lacey, the lead singer and lyricist of the band, as a case study for this redemption with the controversy that surfaced almost eleven years after this album was written.

Before I get into the nature of the controversy, I should warn that some readers may wish to skip the following paragraph, or to stop reading this review here, because sensitive topics such as sexual assault and misconduct will be discussed.

Essentially, the controversy to which I refer here is that in November 2017 a woman came forward with allegations that Lacey (in his mid-twenties at the time) had solicited nude pictures from her when she was as young as fifteen, into her early twenties. Soon after, others came forward and reported similar behaviour and grooming from Lacey (or worse, in some cases including unwanted sexual contact and being asked to perform sexual acts over video call), which seems to have taken place throughout the 2000’s. Lacey then issued an apology to all the people he had hurt in some way in his past (naming no one in particular, nor acknowledging specific allegations), blaming a sex addiction and stating that he had sought help, gone sober and started a family in the time between then and the surfacing of the allegations. Whether or not the apology that he issued is a good one, or if he came off in a negative way because of it, it stands that Lacey gave some indication of remorse for his actions and expressed a willingness to improve himself further, but the crimes in question here are grotesque and heinous to most moral sensibilities.

The question arises, then, of the possibility of redemption: is it possible for Lacey, or anyone in a similar position, to redeem themselves after such horrendous acts in the past? This is the same question that Lacey asks throughout this album, albeit from a primarily religious perspective. For the sake of brevity, rather than looking at every track individually I shall look at some prominent examples to demonstrate how the album engages with the themes in question:

The second track, “Millstone”, is the first that truly engages with the religious and moral concerns I wish to focus on here. Its name is itself a reference to the bible (both Luke 17:2 and Matthew 18:6 refer to the same event wherein Jesus said that it would be better for those who lead believers astray to have a large millstone to be tied around the neck of and for them to be tossed into the sea than to be allowed to succeed in their tempting) the opening lyrics speak to a profound regret and distaste for the current state that he finds himself in (“I used to be such a burning example/ I used to be so original/ I used to care, I was being careful/ made sure I showed it to those that I loved”). Lacey then goes on to say that he “used to pray like God was listening”, a reference to his Christian upbringing (in contrast to his impiety in later life) and, in the chorus, speaks of the weight of his regret and of his sins, as well as his desire to be forgiven by God- asking him to “be his breath” when he is cast into the sea (“well take me out tonight/ this ship of fools I’m on will sink/ I’m my own stone around my neck/ be my breath, there’s nothing I wouldn’t give”). Overall, then, I take this song to be a confession of Lacey’s sins weighing him down, as well as it being the cause of his demise, unless God can come into his life to save him before it is too late. Already the themes of redemption are prominent here, as the listener is forced to ask if it may already be too late for him to be saved given his depiction of himself, and particularly in the light of the recent controversy, or if even he could truly redeem himself.

Immediately after Millstone is “Jesus Christ”. Here the religious connotation is obvious: Lacey sings the song for the most part as if he were singing directly to Jesus himself, asking him what is going to happen to him after he dies and expressing fear that he won’t get to heaven (“well, Jesus Christ, I’m not scared to die/ I’m a little bit scared of what comes after/ Do I get the gold chariot?/ Do I float through the ceiling?”) and that he and the other sinners like him will lie to Jesus and try to crucify him once more when he comes for them (of course this isn’t to be taken literally, I see it more as an expression that Lacey fears his ability to repent is lacking and that he is no better than the sinners who crucified Jesus in the first place when he came to help them see the light- (“I know you think that I’m someone you can trust/ but I’m scared I’ll get scared and I swear I’ll try to nail you back up/ So do you think that we can work out a sign/ so I know it’s you and that it’s over so I won’t even try?/ I know you’re coming for the people like me/but we all got wood and nails/ we turn, turn out hate in factories”). Ultimately, this song represents the sentiment that Lacey fears he may be an innately bad or evil person, no matter whether he wishes and intends to be good or not. Thus, he presents himself as potentially irredeemable, though there is still no certainty in his conclusion: much like the rest of this album, the thematic discussion here serves more as a means of asking questions than of answering them.

Finally, the song “Luca” (the ninth song of twelve on the album) is essentially a loose parallel between Lacey and the character Luca Brasi from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (spoilers for that book and the film will follow, if you somehow managed to avoid it until now), through which Lacey discusses his attempts to abandon his old self in pursuit of a morally righteous life which he feels he may be unable to lead (“I am drearily bloodletting this bedwetting cosmonaut”, “shimmering like a penny out of reach in the subway grating/(Shimmering like a coin kept safe away)”), an effort which is impeded by his godlessness and the fact that God has not yet answered his prayers and come into his life (“so touch me or don’t/ (just let me know)/ Where you’ve been”, “Please drop me a line with a hook and some raw bleeding bait/ For I am uncaught and still swimming alone in the lake/ Shimmering under a moon made in anger and haste”, “(You never listen to anything)”). Then he sings: “‘You could never work well with our group/ Not with the faults we’ve found/ So we’ve fixed you with cement galoshes/ and no one can save you now/ Unless you have friends among fish/ There’ll still be no air to breathe/ You could drink up the entire ocean/ We’ll still find someone to be everything/ We know that you’ll never be’”, which appears to be a direct reference to Luca Brasi’s fate who famously “slept with the fishes” after being found to be a spy and subsequently killed. But beyond this reference, I believe it is expressing Lacey’s fear of being abandoned and cast out by friends, loved ones, family or, more generally, the morally righteous as a result of his “faults” or sins, as well as of being replaced by someone ‘better’.

By use of these examples I hope I have demonstrated why this album is, in my opinion, so interesting as a philosophical piece of art, given its engagement with the themes of redemption, moral righteousness and the innateness of evil. Given the more recent context of the controversy surrounding the man who wrote the lyrics for the album (except for the closing track) it seems that these themes take on a rather different meaning to a contemporary audience, forcing them to question whether innate evil exists and whether redemption (either in the eyes of God or in the eyes of ordinary people) is possible for a man like Lacey who has committed truly heinous acts in his past, even if he seems to acknowledge this and demonstrates a desire to overcome his demons to be a better person.

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