On Tuesday, Aug. 15, the Long Island rock outfit Brand New announced a nameless new release via Twitter, a limited vinyl edition that sold out in minutes. Two days later, news broke that the 500 diehards who'd pre-ordered LPs had been mailed an early surprise: a mysterious CD with a single 61-minute track, indicating that whatever this was meant to be heard in its entirety. The band's own label, Procrastinate! Music Traitors, posted it for sale shortly thereafter, and by that Saturday it was on streaming services, but the mystery of it all still seemed to leave fans breathless. When magic is done right, wonder outweighs the desire to know how it all works.
Science Fiction is Brand New's fifth album, its first in eight years — and, if you believe the rumors that it plans to retire in 2018, possibly its last. In its time away, the group has been playing sleight-of-hand tricks with its own career: touring sparingly, releasing the occasional single, stimulating speculation about when it might return to the studio or break up for good. Characteristically, the road to the new music was winding, purposefully and meticulously skewed with the confidence that fans would follow it anyway. There are other survivors in Brand New's cohort of 2000s, Northeast-bred indie-emo, but few have a mythos as inscrutable or durable, commanding attention through years of inactivity.
It's easy to forget, after an eight-year absence, that before it came eight years of remarkable consistency. Brand New first found fame with its 2001 debut, Your Favorite Weapon, an emo record whose most memorable moment is its hit, "Jude Law and a Semester Abroad," a career-making single about adolescent insecurity and unrequited infatuation. 2003's Deja Entendu continued in that vein, balancing its penchant for emo's whinier weaknesses with impeccable pop structure. The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, the college to Deja's high school, arrived in 2006, a cult classic that abandoned jealous-boyfriend rhetoric and opted for an exploration of the afterlife. The closest thing to a misstep in the band's discography is 2009's Daisy, a set of simple, aggressive rock songs on which guitarist Vincent Accardi found new inspiration in tones ripped from Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam. It was still weird, still stamped with the massiveness the band had cultivated with longtime producer Mike Sapone, but it read as a conscious reversal from Devil and God's intersection of complexity and delicacy.
Science Fiction can best be described as a hybrid of Brand New's past and present selves. The 12-track, hourlong epic begins with an unidentified psychoanalytic recording, a woman recounting her dreams and coming to terms with some sort of sorrow or madness. "Lit Me Up" builds into dizzying, descending balladry, an intro that feels more like an intermission. The repeated lyric in the chorus, "It lit me up and I burned from the inside out / Yeah, I burned like a witch in a Puritan town," recalls the biblical themes of The Devil and God, mixed with a little secular specificity. (Amateur sleuths quickly noted the CD advances of Science Fiction were labeled "44.5902N104.7146W," the coordinates for the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming.) At the end of the track, one can hear some reversed vocals and then the loud click of an analog tape deck shutting off — beginning the band's final chapter, backwards.
On any other Brand New record we'd have already heard frontman Jesse Lacey's habitual screams by now, a sound listeners have come to expect when the situation in a song gets overwhelming and demands a cathartic release. There's a taste of that on the following track, "Can't Get It Out," as Lacey breaks into the line "I'm just a manic depressive" with such self-assured transparency, it's as if he's hearing himself say it aloud for the first time. But for most of Science Fiction, his voice doesn't rise above a raspy whisper, creating an atmosphere of secrecy and perhaps projecting a newfound emotional maturity.
Throughout the album, Lacey seems to be wrestling with how to say goodbye. When he misses the mark — as with an insensitive Nagasaki metaphor in "137" — he makes up some of the difference in his delivery, delicate and dirge-like. On the final song, "Batter Up," he is more direct about facing up to ambivalence, singing, "It's never going to stop / Give me your best shot / Never gets forgot / Don't get what you want." The very last seconds of the record are swallowed by bulbous feedback, before a voice comes out of the ambiance to say, "It's what we're waiting for." The ending's simplicity makes it a perfect coda: We're done. Thank you for your graciousness for all these years.
Emo has a reputation for being juvenile, but the fact is fans are inclined to pledge a kind of lifetime loyalty to it — not just because it tends to find people at formative moments in their adolescence, but also by virtue of the kind of music it is: vulnerable, personal, frequently ineffable in its ability to identify with human experience. If you're open to emo, you often find community and understanding in it, an extramusical gift of belonging that can be hard to let go. (This is also why emo's best-kept secret to those outside its orbit, or to those insiders who opt for ignorance cloaked as anti-capitalist punk ethos, is that it makes money.) Brand New arrived in a time of commercial potential for emo but always teetered on the genre line, veering into broader indie rock territory. The benefit was mutual, freeing the band from emo's cultural stigma and lending the style itself a little plasticity.
Emo is even more malleable now, and the Brand New heard on Science Fiction knows it. There are hints of Pink Floyd here. "Same Logic/Teeth" feels like a B-side from Modest Mouse's The Moon & Antarctica (with some latter-day Modest Mouse thrown in on the pitch-dropped vocal line, "At the bottom of the ocean, fish won't judge you for your faults.") "No Control" offers a ferocious D-beat; "In The Water," a mournful harmonica; and there's a rolling roadhouse riff driving "451." The sequence of tracks has a cinematic cohesion, though it's left to the listener to resolve it into a bigger picture. Like good magicians, Brand New refuses to let the audience in on the secret.
In only revealing so many of their cards, the Brand New's creative minds are orchestrating a comeback in the most fitting way imaginable: on their own terms, for a finite amount of time (2018 is looming), with what may be the best album of their career. Nostalgia remains a factor in their successes, but it isn't the driving force: their loyal audience persists, and they've influenced a younger crowd to take part. Science Fiction is both a reunion and a career-closer, after years of stage-managed absence. Perhaps only Brand New could find a seamless way to do both.