A war of worlds

Brand NewThe Devil and God are Raging Inside MeInterscope RecordsFour out of five stars

Jesse Lacy–the reclusive lead singer of New Jersey’s Brand New–just masterminded the best record to be mistakenly classified as “emo” (The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me) since?the last time he masterminded the best record to be mistakenly classified as emo (2003’s acclaimed Deja Entendu).

Does this make Brand New the best emo band in America?

Maybe.

But if it does, the title has everything to do with the fact that Brand New does not–repeat DOES NOT–make emo music.

Hasn’t for some time.

Such a distinction deserves clarification: By emo, I mean the incarnation of the genre that has been wildly popularized/bastardized by MTV and its Clear Channel ilk since about the year 2002. Think whiny, victimized, vacant, performative, angsty, formulaic junk a la Yellowcard, Thrice, Something Corporate, Hawthorn Heights, et al.

I do not mean emo as it originally existed–as a term used to vaguely denote a varied and diverse assortment of artists who had little in common (sonically) aside from an undeniable sense of earnestness and necessity.

This usage stopped being applicable around the time Brand New released its last record–2003’s spacey, contemplative, brave expedition out of its parents’ basement, into the real world–and abandoned the now watered-down genre for greener, more ambitious pastures.

What happened to Brand New when it made the shift is that the band began to form a legitimate, distinct, individual musical identity?one that exists outside the generalizations of genre.

Brand New became an autonomous band.

This independence is explored further on The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me–an appropriately titled release that grapples with a spectrum of internal contradictions facing the self as it struggles to find footing in a transient world.

This grappling is set to a soundtrack of adventurous guitars (power-chord fans will be disappointed by the craftsmanship and precision on The Devil and God’s riffs) and Lacy’s ever-spectral vocals. Truthfully, Lacy’s voice is that of the haunted: These are not sounds made by a man who can’t escape some trauma, but rather by a man who can’t escape himself.

Included in the album’s contradictions is that of being repeatedly mislabeled and misunderstood. Lacy dwells on the inappropriate appropriation of suffering by those who seek company in misery–if there is a message on The Devil and God, it’s that there is some s*** in this life that one goes through by one’s self. Period.

Lacy excavates this existential realization in a variety of ends, arriving ultimately at the solace that, while no one can understand another’s sadness, everyone is alone in proximity to everyone else.

And there is bravery in this sentiment.

Brand New makes a kind of robust rejection of idealistic identification in The Devil and God: It’s hard not to hear Lacy addressing the clingy throngs of wet-blanket Brand New fans and critics when he sings, “I am not your friend / I am just a man who knows how to feel / I am not your friend, I’m not your lover, I’m not your family,” on “Sewing Season (Yeah).”

And this stubborn (read: adult, realistic, objective) independence gets right at the heart of why Brand New matters in ways that 99.9 percent of emo bands don’t and never will. Brand New recognizes its own evils, is not really OK with any of them and makes no apologies for the paradox.

Never on The Devil and God do listeners get the feeling that a sense of sadness is being performed. For Jesse Lacy, grief is not manufactured for effect. Self-loathing on Brand New records is genuine–as such, it is distressing and worrisome, not sexy or compelling.

When Lacy sings on “Jesus,” “I know you think I’m someone you can trust, but I’m scared/ I’ll get scared/ And I swear I’m trying?We all have wooden nails, we sleep inside this machine,” he is not asking for sympathy from someone outside himself, but rather inside.

And therein lies THE important distinction: The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me is not a record that asks for anything from its listeners. Just itself.

The Devil and God doesn’t have time to care about how an audience will feel–Brand New has more intimate, immediate problems to address. This doesn’t make it a callous or inconsiderate CD, but it makes it an honest one. Here we have been given an almost journalistic account of the trials facing a man and a band, fumbling desperately for some semblance of stability.

It’s remarkably powerful in this way.

And that alone makes The Devil and God anything but emo.