Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history. This week, Nina Corcoran tackles Brand New’s game-changing third studio album with the help of Manchester Orchestra, Kevin Devine, and mewithoutYou.
When Brand New released their third studio album, no one expected it to change as many things as it did. And, to be fair, it was hard to recognize its impact in real time. On November 21, 2006, the Long Island four-piece — singer and guitarist Jesse Lacey, lead guitarist Vincent Accardi, bassist Garrett Tierney, and drummer Brian Lane — released The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, an album so full of ferocity and life that every indication of what it offered — the melodramatic title, the unsettling artwork, the suggestive song names — barely scratched the surface of what laid within. It’s their longest album, clocking in just shy of an hour, and yet it feels like the fastest, the most complete, the most swift in moving the listener from one horrid place to another and back again. The album guts the band and the listener simultaneously, and in the process, Brand New trashed predispositions about what it meant to gut yourself in that fashion, to rip your heart off your sleeve, cut an incision down the middle, and encourage passersby to stare for as long as they pleased.
Looking back, Brand New ended the need to feel ashamed for connecting to emo. The early 2000s saw pop punk shift into a whinier era, but the band opted not to follow, marking a change in what it meant to support a genre that was so very easy to taunt. Blink-182 profited from juvenile humor. Fueled by Ramen idolized the rise of adolescent lyricism. My Chemical Romance found an audience for over-the-top theatrics. The first half of that decade became a place where emo music lost the edge of Sunny Day Real Estate and American Football’s ability to grapple with rectitude. It became a genre of revenge lyrics, of comically dramatic ultimatums, of predictable hooks worth replaying because of the comforts familiarity offers. Frankly, Brand New only fit into the definitions of pop punk and emo because of their debut LP, Your Favorite Weapon, and shortly after abandoned the genre’s usual definition. But they held tight to the emotional honesty of their lyrics come 2003’s Deja Entendu and brought an even sharper knife to their tongues when crafting the words for their third LP, carrying their fanbase on an evolution of sound that encouraged countless other bands to reach beyond their genres, too.
The album prioritizes hearing music first and words second (a comical choice given the number of people who ink its lyrics into their skin) to emphasize its larger themes. It’s not really tied to Satan (2013’s vinyl reissue with 666 copies in red excluded) or spiritual respite, but rather self-doubt, the grievances of loss, and how to reckon with personal struggles when they claw from within — things that must be felt before they can be described. Pop punk is built on being able to yell lyrics back in a band’s face. Emo is made for jotting lyrics down and sighing. With The Devil and God, Brand New surpassed these genres and, with that, the ways to listen to them by viciously cranking the volume and getting experimental, bringing theremin and strings into the mix. It raised the bar not just for listeners, but for the band themselves. “It is an important record and piece of work to us,” Lacey wrote on Facebook this summer, “and one that 10 years later we still use as a measuring post with which we compare the music we make now.”
Singer-songwriter Kevin Devine became close friends with Lacey in 2000. In the years between Deja Entendu and Devil and God, they traded stories, supporting one another during troubled times and listening through tricky career steps. “There was a time we went to Sapone’s house, and two of the Goddamn Band members — Mike Skinner who played keyboards that night and Margaret White who played violin — and I played bass and we tracked a super early sketch of ‘You Won’t Know’, which must be floating around on a hard drive,” Devine says over the phone. “For me, it wasn’t like, ‘Are they making Dark Side of the Moon but for emo?’ These were just my friends making cool songs, but it definitely felt like an awareness of a movement forward. The prior record wasn’t frivolous in any way, but these songs were more serious, more formidable, they demanded to be reckoned. Brand New advanced as arrangers.”
Whereas Deja Entendu took four months between the recording sessions and the release of the album, The Devil and God took over a year and a half from when they first entered the recording studios in March of 2005. Brand New took their time figuring out how to capture these communal feelings. It started in Oxford, Mississippi, where the four met up with Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Ben Folds), but they quickly backed out of recording with him because of prices and timing, despite Herring understanding what they wanted to capture on record. Instead, they turned to Mike Sapone, the producer behind Your Favorite Weapon, who brought them to a farm in Massachusetts; Cove City in Nassau County, New York; and his own home studio to record what would become the final version of The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me.
Sapone encouraged the four to push these feelings and, in turn, the instrumentation that feeds them. The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me follows through on the sonic extremes it suggests. Desolate, dense guitars intro one song before flipping entirely, a type of musical bipolarness. It begins with “Sowing Season”, an accessible track with foreboding desperation about losing friends that smashes its quiet verses with blaring choruses. Brand New suddenly embrace dynamics at their zenith. A gorgeous drum fill will cut just in time for each instrument to come slamming down. What was forcibly quiescent has awoken, especially on “You Won’t Know”, a song that allows the band to unleash something too evil to sketch and calls for the listener’s own rage to take reign. Brand New is on a path of edification by ripping themselves to pieces, balancing soft and loud with impossible dramatics, foregoing summation entirely.
Photo by Heather Kaplan
Devine’s first experience with the album was during a drive from Phoenix to Austin, alone. “I bought the record on iTunes that morning and The Essential Leonard Cohen. That was all I listened to,” he laughs. “I had never heard ‘Jesus’ — I don’t know if that was on purpose, like Jesse being like, ‘Wait until he hears this one’ — and I listened to that song probably 14 times in a row. I remember that vividly, thinking that was the best song they had ever written. Songwriting-wise, it is slow, nuanced, the hook is great, there’s that faint nod to Modest Mouse with the harmonic bend in the chorus. I was really, really, really impressed. It’s a songwriting song — emotionally, educationally, intellectually, structurally, in every way. Then there was ‘You Won’t Know’, which was gnarly. But ‘Degausser’ was the one that was wild. I knew this guy well, we shared all the buttons in our lives, but I felt like I was eavesdropping on something when I listened to that song. I still do.”
For others, their first listen wasn’t an intimate moment, but one of shared overwhelmingness. “The first time I heard it, we were in Jesse’s rental car, driving to go buy a guitar,” Manchester Orchestra frontman Andy Hull tells me over the phone. It was August of 2006. Manchester Orchestra and Brand New mastered their albums within two weeks of one another. The moment Lacey received Devil and God in the mail, he encouraged Hull to listen with him. “He listened to it with the volume completely turned up, it couldn’t go up any louder, and I just remember thinking, ‘This is super loud. I wish he would turn it down so I can figure out what was going on.’ But once I adjusted, and was like alright, this is how we’re going to listen to this record, I just remember going, ‘Man, what a step. What a huge step.’”
That shuddering volume wasn’t a trick of the studio. It’s man-made, and it’s still just as present in today’s live shows as it was back then. “I remember we came in when they were doing a soundcheck at a show in Berlin,” mewithoutYou guitarist Mike Weiss says over the phone. “It was a pretty small club, but you could just tell that this music was going to be way too huge to be contained. And lo and behold, that turned out to be quite true.”
That severity was in part the exasperation of numerous failed songwriting sessions. It began when Brand New wrote new songs in early 2004, but delayed recording them in order to return to daily life after years of touring. When they regrouped in late 2005, they found themselves distanced from the songs, many of which carried a different tone or structure than the material they hoped to now create. Brand New got to work on a new set of songs yet again, but come January of 2006, nine of those untitled demos leaked online. Upset at the thought of unfinished songs landing in the hands of fans, the band reworked four demos — two for the album proper (“Untitled 8” became “Sowing Season” and “Untitled 6” became “Luca”) and two for later B-sides (“Untitled 7” became “Fork and Knife” and “Untitled 3” became “Brothers”) — and scrapped the rest, writing a new set of material for the third time, this final set that would play out in Sapone’s studios.
That ferocity paid off. Devil and God wretches like it’s going to hurl, slushing a mix of unprecedented rage and self-disgust that is, unfortunately, relatable. During one of their 2007 tours, Brand New closed with instrumental track “Welcome to Bangkok” and asked the other bands to join them onstage to double its volume. It was a rally cry for the distraught, and Hull, specifically, was asked to kick off the song on acoustic guitar. “For a 19-year-old kid, to be starting the encore? It was trippy,” says Hull. “It was very idiot savant: soundcheck, day of, ‘Hey, can you learn this part?’ So all of a sudden I’m playing one song and then it was, ‘Oh, there’s actually this guitar part that we need somebody else, too.’ At that point, I realized these guys are aiming for something that’s really grand. And they’re achieving it; it’s inspiring.”
That’s when it became clear: This wasn’t a band whining about suburban woes. Their Deja Entendu days of youthful, emotional intellectualism had passed. This was the sound of emo taking on a new form while simultaneously shedding the genre altogether. It’s interpersonal bravery that comes with confronting oneself, the therapeutic confessionals of depression, and the quiet rage that accompanies fear, loss, and the unknown. The rhythm section alone howls with rigidity and recklessness. “He’ll come in on a song and, to this day, I still can’t pinpoint exactly when his part’s coming,” Weiss says of drummer Brian Lane. “Usually, as a musician, you can listen to music and get in touch with when parts will come in based on where you are in the song and what measure, but ultimately this guy is putting down parts that no other drummer I can think of would do.”
Photo by David Brendan Hall
“Degausser” and “Sowing Season”, two of Devil and God’s scariest — truly, scary — tracks, were written spontaneously by the whole band. As iconic as Lacey’s blood-curling screams are, it’s Tierney and Lane’s parts that drive the songs’ seasickness. Just look at “Millstone”, a song with guitar groans that don’t quite mimic sirens until the hollow march of the drums and bass thunder during the outro. They broke down traditional song structure and replaced it with something manic. Brand New settled the discussion: They weren’t an emo band. They were a rock band purging every emotion that ever harmed them.
“It just exemplifies what Nirvana did for mainstream music in the early ’90s with Nevermind,” says Weiss. “I feel like that record kind of acted as sort of pioneering watermark for musical genres that existed in our country – in the world really. It broke the barrier of ‘our music just meant for this subculture.’ It’s much bigger than the ‘emo’ music scene. They’ve obviously come along and they’ve destroyed that entire limitation, that boundary, and that is the importance of that record. In this time of the early 2000s, with so much watered down musical content, they were trying to push things.”
Brand New managed to shift musically while making their major label debut. Interscope Records released the album and with it no doubt prodded the band, but they held firm. “They make their own space and they step into it seemingly without fear,” says Devine. “That isn’t the same as fearlessly; everyone has trepidation and worry, and no band is faultless in that way, no matter how punk rock you think they are, but they had a willingness to pursue their vision.”
With previous records, Brand New released singles after an album had dropped. With Devil and God, they allowed the label to release advance streams of “Sowing Season” (October 20, 2006) and “Degausser” (November 14, 2006). They performed on late night TV twice (Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Late Show with David Letterman). Changes in publicity were made, but the label knew what they were doing. Devil and God charted on the Billboard 200.
Charting may seem casual now given the critical support it’s garnered, but at the time, its creepiness seemed to have no place anywhere in mainstream circles. “They are just dudes in flannel playing songs, but there’s a drama in it. That’s not a pejorative, it’s a positive,” says Devine. “Jesse isn’t afraid to tease with that, which is why the stakes, the recording component, and the reality behind it are dark. It’s also dark from that feeling you get during ‘Degausser’ where you’re pummeled and this unhinged yelling comes in. That’s the soundtrack to a horror movie. You get the sense that the narrator is horrified by his experience, too.”
The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me was and still is a title of lengthy expectations, setting the tone for extreme thrashing, but it’s the cover art that did the talking. The image is iconic, even among people uninterested in this genre of music, for its eerie contrast between a small girl and two masked figures lurking at the doorway of a house — which makes it even better that the photograph wasn’t commissioned for the record. The piece, titled “Untitled #44”, comes from photographer Nicholas Prior’s “Age of Man” collection. After seeing it on display in New York City, the band expressed interest in using it, but Prior declined access.
“A few days later, [my dealer] Yossi [Milo] called me back,” Prior explains over the phone. “He told me that he’d tried to entice them with images by other artists, but that the band felt very strongly about using my photo. I found out who the band was, and they sent me an advance copy of the album, which is what sealed the deal. At some point, I was also told that no text would run over the image, which I thought really indicated their commitment to the image.”
Commitment was an understatement. Brand New was entranced by Prior’s work and had no intent of fracturing what he captured. Initially drawn to the surface-level creepiness, each member found himself fixated on different aspects of the photograph. “I feel the place of power resides with the two people in the mask, but the girl seemed oddly calm in that situation,” Lacey told BBC when asked why they chose it. “The way she holds her arm and sleeve seems strange, like she does not know what’s round the corner.”
At the time he shot the image, Prior was interested in Freud and his writings on the uncanny, the cognitive dissonance someone feels when something is both comforting and discomforting. “Certain elements of the photo — the chipping paint or the red berries, for example — contribute to the idea of the uncanny, but they weren’t preconceived,” says Prior. “The slippers are, in a way, a lot more menacing than the dark overcoats or the rubber masks, because they are incongruous, they’re misleading, which speaks more to the idea of the album title, too.”
The truth is, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me wasn’t just an album that altered Brand New’s trajectory. It altered the path of emo and alt-rock bands at large. It blurred genre lines and bolded something beyond the band. By abandoning the clichés of their previous full-lengths, Brand New found their own voice the way their idols did (see: Modest Mouse, Neutral Milk Hotel, Built to Spill), but in a spectacular fashion.
“The bridge to ‘Not the Sun’ is maybe my favorite minute of music in their catalog,” says Devine. “Great bridges are not easy. Elliott Smith and Nada Surf have always been talented at that. That’s what I was impressed with, and I remember showing that record to my snobbier indie rock friends and telling them, ‘You guys weren’t right about this band.’ I felt this need to explain the record to my friends not because I had to, but because I wanted to. It was impressive music that needed to be heard.”
Despite this, Brand New refused to get big-headed. “There was an east coast kind of camaraderie that we shared,” says Weiss, laughing, looking back on their supporting tour with Thrice. “We just had a lot of fun going back and forth with those dudes about the Mets and the Phillies — just to let you know, at that time, it really was the peak of the rivalry between those two teams — about how the Mets had choked, that last year they were toppled over by the Phillies. It was very inspiring to see a group of guys that were out there just doing such a great job with what they were doing musically but still balanced the stupid joys of life. It really was encouraging in a lot of ways.”
Photo by Ben Kaye
Remembering the band’s place in the world speaks to the album even more. Its themes didn’t consume them; they overwhelmed them, and then they left, the way listeners themselves get wrapped tightly in past memories, struggle to free themselves from its rope, and then manage to cut free and return to the trivialities of life. A song like “Luca” begins delicately with long stretches of echo beneath it. Lacey takes his time getting to the peak, each of his words a demented bedtime story, before letting out a terrifying scream that, to this day, still catches listeners off guard. Brand New gave a voice to living nightmares and their power over the person, but they know to follow it with “Untitled”, an atmospheric number with jostled microphone sounds and distanced, unintelligible banter. The juxtaposition provides a break, but more so, it provides a trance, a loop of lonely guitar strums that raises a question: Is it better to lash out unexpectedly in a fit of anger, harming those around you, or to be swallowed whole by the indolence of dejection, harming yourself twice as much?
“Jesse is a very clever songwriter,” says Hull, speaking about his pairing of musical implications and lyrical markers. “Like anybody who takes their time and really cares about their craft, I think he takes his time to make sure what he’s saying is what he wants to say and is interesting enough to be heard.”
At times, that means nodding to other texts, like a lyric lifted from Roky Erickson’s “Bloody Hammer” for “Degausser” or a play on Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” for the second verse of “Sowing Season”. Other times, it means funneling nightmares into a seven-minute elegy. After reading about the death of local Katie Flynn, a seven-year-old girl killed by a drunk driver hours after serving as a flower girl in her aunt’s wedding, Lacey couldn’t shake the news story from his head. He wrote “Limosine” to tackle the accident from every perspective he could think of, and in the process, wrote some of his most haunting lyrics to date. (“I’ll never have to buy adjacent plots of earth/ We’ll never have to rot together underneath dirt/ I’ll never have to lose my baby in the crowd.”)
“Lyrically speaking, Jesse captures your heart a little bit more than most bands, because he’s a relatable personality on stage, and he’s definitely somewhat trustworthy,” says Weiss. “There’s just a tenderness to Jesse’s songs that makes you feel like he is sort of right there with you and questioning the same things that you’re questioning and in awe of the things that you’re in awe of — and he does it with such grace. The quality of his voice, too. It’s so tender and then it can get so … so intense and raw and real that it makes for a very charismatic but relatable frontman.”
Lacey’s words open themselves on Devil and God in a way previous records hadn’t. Each band member faced illness and death in their family life, funerals becoming a numbing event by repetition alone, but Devil and God surfaces surface-level grief. As he continues to tackle the pain of relationships (“Love’s just God on a good day”), the afterlife (“Well Jesus Christ, I’m not scared to die, I’m a little bit scared of what comes after”), religion (“You’re beating with a book everyone that book tells you to love”), and abuse (“Don’t feed me scraps from your bed and I won’t be the stray coming back just to be fed”), his phrasing becomes cryptic, technically easy to break down but somehow possessing a deeper unrest.
When asked during interviews why the band turned towards darkness on this record, Lacey pointed towards the pitfalls of life: deaths in the family, adulthood responsibilities, the latent sadness of life itself. “I hear people talk about writing songs being therapeutic, and I never really felt that until this record,” he told German publication Allschools in 2005. “I understand finally what they meant. There were a lot of questions asked that I could deal with by writing these songs.” No matter what the song is, that sense of heavy questioning, and peril from questioning, breathes underneath it.
Photo by Ben Kaye
“At first, his lyrics could be cocky, a bit like Morrissey in that way, but then the songs on Devil and God got pretty, pretty personal and pretty spiritual,” says Weiss. “Every single person can admit that sometimes when you’re laying in bed, you realize that you’re completely, utterly alone in this world, you know that you came in that way and you’re gonna leave that way. What else is there that actually is worth thinking about and searching for?”
Lacey’s not the only one penning rain clouds, either. Accardi wrote “Handcuffs” in addition to the music of “Not the Sun” and “Welcome to Bangkok”, but it’s that album closer that brings a faux sense of a relief to the album. A viola and cello hum over porch-side guitars, creating the groundwork for pensive rumination, while Acardi’s words tell a tale of inner unrest: “I’d drown all these crying babies/ If I knew that their mothers wouldn’t cry/ I’d hold them down and I’d squeeze real soft/ And let a piece of myself die/ It’s hard to be the better man when you forget you’re trying.” It’s the cost of being a hero paralleled to the urge of lashing out — a summation of every song before it and the greater sense that none of these questions have actually been answered, likely because the horrors that instigate them never sleep.
Devil and God‘s lyrics are infamous for more than how they’re sung. The CD comes with a collection of photos and phrases. Stamped at the end of the insert is “Please send $1 to [address] for a complete copy of the lyrics.” As the years passed and fans reached out, no one got their money’s worth. It wasn’t until April of last year, a whopping nine years later, that those who mailed a dollar to Brand New finally received lyric booklets in the mail (Excluding people, like myself, whose address of residency had since changed). In classic Brand New fashion, they were intricate and crafty, a reward well worth the wait, and they set aside additional copies on their merch table that year.
“Brand New do procrastination better than any other band,” says Hull, laughing. “They’re the best at it. They’re the kings, undisputed.” They shy away from press. They decline photo shoots. They see no rush in issuing physical copies — it wasn’t until 2010 that they released Devil and God as a double vinyl LP, lyric sheet included — or a new line of t-shirts, made all the cheekier by naming their self-made record label Procrastinate! Music Traitors. But truth be told, what should be Brand New’s downfall winds up waxing their allure. The authenticity laced in their work compensates for whatever wait fans endure.
Perhaps that’s the greatest mark left by The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me: a fandom that refuses to quit. Even Prior still gets a steady stream of questions about the meaning of the photograph, though he never discloses identities of the people or the location out of respect for privacy. “Once someone sent me a picture of a tattoo right after he’d gotten it, the skin still a little red and swollen,” he says. “What made me laugh was his note, which was rather succinct: ‘I hope you appreciate this.’”
Brand New opened the floodgates for emo and alt-rock acts that followed in their footsteps, but it’s the expansion of songwriting structures, the emotional intensity paired with truly impressive guitar work, that fans can and do revert to a decade later. Growing up, one of the saddest truths to accept is an album’s ability to fade. Life experiences and, more often the case, an increased breadth of music force listeners to listen differently. Songs lose their initial charm. Edgy cuts appear cheap. But in the rare case, there’s a band from your adolescence that wrote songs not for a time frame, but for a growth frame.
In the case of Devil and God, these songs are about coming to terms with the power you can wield, even when you chose not to, and how viciously it tears you up inside. It’s a dizzying rush, like chasing your own tail in an effort to both bite it and heal it, and for better or worse, the album voices that madness. It’s a growth frame that cannot be outgrown, and no matter how well we disguise it in the workplace, that’s something that never quite ends.