17 June 2003
I was once provoked by a friend of mine to ask myself a question. That question is, "From the modern age of music, what is the soundtrack of your life?" At that time, I was left silenced in my response. To me, there really was no all-encompassing answer to that rhetorical question used to prove the superiority of classic rock.
And then came Brand New's 2003 release of Deja Entendu. To most, Brand New is a band of mystery, just another alternative white boy group they've never heard of in their life. To others, it's a p*ssy band for emo heartthrobs to listen to while they're posting their new "scene" exploits for their friends via Myspace blogs. But to those "emo heartthrobs," Brand New, headed by 29 year old songwriter Jesse Lacey, is widely accepted as one of the greatest bands to ever hit planet earth.
From the time it was released, and still today, Deja has been the clear example of some the most appropriate musicianship, vocals, and lyrics that Brand New (and anyone else) can offer. In the underground alternative/punk/emo scene, it is revered as a God among albums, similar to that of Led Zeppelin IV or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the mainstream classic rock world.
Don't believe me, thinking "I've never even heard of this 'great' band"? Well, drop the Mastodon, the Nickelback, the Aaliyah, the Billy Joel, or whatever else it is you're listening to, do the noble thing, and expand those proverbial horizons, why don't you?
In an era where LPs rarely feature well rounded musical effort or a complete album vision, they instead often display a succession of rapid and unconnected 3 minute teenage an(gst)hems. Deja exquisitely bucks this trend, and while it's definitely the overall young people's anthem of all anthems, it transcends the stereotypical "My life sucks. Girls are mean to me." feeling of still-good acts like Yellowcard, Mayday Parade, or Jimmy Eat World.
One of the most controversial conundrums in music today stems from the issue of production. While perfecting this art is accepted as a positive skill for music, it all too frequently dissolves the ability for us to relate to music on the personal level that we're used to. This probably aptly explains the sudden lust for so-called "lo-fi" music (also known as the indie underground movement). However, occasionally but very rarely, an album like this comes along with the ability to overcome the assumed loss of musical personality while retaining the ability to produce a perfectly clear record. With crisp vocals, a symbiotic guitar/bass duo, and timely drumming throughout, Deja is a fine example of such an exception.
The album kicks off with "Tautuo", a creepy, stirring intro song that foreshadows the album theme of the despair of emotional anguish, depressed even more by the pressures of our own unavoidable sexual desires. This fitting kickoff fades gently right into the rolling, businesslike bass line of "Sic Transit Gloria...Glory Fades". Right from the start of Lacey's vocals, you can see (or hear) that this is going to be more serious and eloquent than you're accustomed to hearing, and by the end of the second half-sung stanza you can tell that this album is already diving headfirst into sex. In partial story-telling mode, the track focuses on a boy's point of view as he finds himself in over his head in the bedroom, a feeling I think most or all of us have felt, regardless of whether or not you've physically been there yourself. As the chorus draws in, the backing vocals separate from the lead and proclaim one of the harshest and most paradoxical truths of our age: "Up the stairs: the station where / the act becomes the art of growing up". From the sweat, the focus, the awkward motions, and the struggles of one side to the calm, cool, and careless approach of the other, very little intensity is lost in this epic track from the real deal that we perceive as the highest form of living.
For such a powerfully fast spark that "Sic Transit" was, the transition into the ensuing "I Will Play My Game Beneath The Spin Light" is uncharacteristically, perhaps even uncoordinatedly, slow. Acoustic guitars and softly yearning vocals enter immediately to tell of the strains and difficulties of faraway touring. Musically, this is one of Deja's weaker points, but the final few lines of the first two verses skyrocket it almost into my personal hall of lyrical and musical fame: "Collect calls to home / To tell them that I realize / That everyone who lives will someday die / And die alone" and " Oh, I would kill for the Atlantic, / But I am paid to make girls panic / While I sing". Simple on paper, but it's an entirely different experience when the shift in senses is adjusted for the ears.
Track 03, also known as "Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don't", instantly slows the album down from the emotional "Spin Light" and returns it to the somber mood that made its presence known in "Sic Transit". To me, I could see this song as having a multitude of meanings (for example, I see it outlining the vanity of our outlook on relationships which becomes clearly evident even as we claim innocence), so I wouldn't pin it down for just one. Entering the chorus, you're hit with a wall of guitar that feels like a 30 mph amp to the face. From there, it coasts along with the continuing archetypes of said vanity until the inevitable discourse that follows the cool runnings of every relationship dismantle everything.
This leads us to perhaps the most epic/catchy track on Deja, "The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows". Wasting no time in getting started, a typical punk guitar riff layered with a steady bass and crashing cymbals kicks it off with stellar emphasis. If one song on this piece of history could be labeled as anthemic, this is certainly the one, and in turn, if you've never heard Brand New before, this is the one song you may possibly just maybe kind of recognize upon hearing for the first time. This may, in fact, be the ideal song to immerse oneself in at those occasional times when there are too many emotions mixing together to separate (yes...feel those emo vibes...). And if raw emotion is not enough to satisfy the conservative-driven soul, the grammar freaks can feast on one of my favorite wordplays of all time in the bridge. All in all, this is one of Deja's premier tracks.
From a song known for its catchy chorus to one known for its catchy verses, "The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot" enters next in the long line of tedious song titles. "The Boy" appears to focus on the tangible and emotional fallouts between two people in the aftermath of a broken relationship. The narrator, in an extension of kindness to his former lover, decides to show her just how vile he knows that he is (A cleverly poetic way to carry the song out - another quality of the record is its subtle lyrical geniuses). Eventually, the acoustics lead an invisible crescendo (it's intensity increases, anyway) that conclude the song with possibly the only lyrics to rival that of "Sic Transit's": "Spring keeps you ever close. / You are second hand smoke. / You are so fragile and thin, / standing trial for your sins, / holding on to yourself the best you can. / You are the smell before rain. / You are the blood in my veins." Again, words on paper are light, but I assure you that music adds a lot of weight to these lyrics.
Transitioning into “Jaws Theme Swimming”, Brand New’s bass and lead guitar trade off in one of the coolest riffs on the album, which continue through the verses. In my humble eyes, this is one of the most instrumentally impressive tracks, with the guitar and bass taking more freedoms than previously. The entire song emits an aura of darkness and frustration, nicely paralleled by the lyrics, which seem to bring alive the painful realities of life. With great hopes and expectations we go into the world, and with desolation and crushing disappointment we realize the fruitlessness of our efforts that we thought would launch us into success. Hm. This seems to be an ongoing trend with this particular record…
As “Jaws Theme” fades into nothingness, the five softest chords you’ve ever heard mark a second peak (or valley?) in Deja. Where almost the entire album is narrated with tired vocals, nothing compares to the quiet emotional outpour from Jesse Lacey in “Me Vs. Maradona Vs. Elvis”. It almost serves as an open confessional, as if admitting your most recent sins to the silent priest, only this time without making them up on the spot. With us behind the confessional screen, Lacey opens up, chronicling the events leading up to taking advantage of the stereotypical drunk bar girl by deceitfully leading her from the barstool to the car to the bedroom. With more wistful remorse than a nostalgic Rico talking about the fourth quarter of the state championship, you can vividly feel yourself at the scene of the crime, watching a disorientated Jesse Lacey go through the pitiful motions of what knows will drag him down into a shameful pool of regret come sunrise. “MvMvE” is certainly one of many highlights of the album, if not the track to catch.
Finally straying from the love-gone-bad theme of the album, “Guernica” focuses on Lacey’s grandfather’s bout with lung cancer. This made the song much easier to understand when I found that little fact out, as I was trying to compare lines like “My lungs are fresh and yours to keep / Kept clean and they will let you breathe” to girl troubles. As a tribute to his grandpa, it’s lyrically touching, digressing into desperate screams at one point and then instantly reanimating into a calm, almost creepy vocal effort. It’s not the best on the album, but I’m sure it is to at least one certain somebody.
Lovely distorted guitars bring the listener out of the somber state and right on into “Good To Know That If I Ever Needed Attention All I Need To Do Is Die”. Easily the longest track on the album, it extends out to over seven minutes in length, mostly from repeated choruses and instrumentals. The lyrics seem to convey the mind of a writer, but beyond that, it’s too muddled to make a foolproof interpretation. At 3:16, the most prevalent instrumental section of the entire album, featuring a good bit of Eagle’s “Hotel California” influence coming in, gives “Good To Know…” a numb but refined sound. There’s a whole lot of passion that bursts out in this song, and while it’s not a personal favorite, it’s definitely up there with the best songs on the record.
And so, with an emotional array of fast-moving, passionate screamers sprinkled ever so depressingly with trudging, sorrow-inducing reminiscants, proper album etiquette demands with the most silent of mandates that the record close with a slower-than-average emotive heart wrencher. Since Brand New pretty well delivers that to a T with the previous ten tracks, the only way to blow the candle out with a show is to, well, make a song even more passionate, more depressingly sorrow-inducing, and more soaked to the core with emotion until it’s dripping so hard with anguish that the only way to stop it is to immediately run out and buy as much band merch as your wallet can regurgitate. Track 11 is “Play Crack The Sky”.
“Play Crack” could easily be substituted as a poem and still have tremendous effect. It’s geared less towards standard song structure and more towards a freeform poetic method. For example, no chorus! Successful chorus liberation is difficult, but makes music ten times more mature than it is with a repetition of summarized “Interpretations For Dummies” segments. The entire song is a comparison between the dismal game of love and the wicked inner workings of the ocean. As a listener may find, a rogue wave and the passing of time have a little more in common than one might think. It’s also all acoustic, leaving all drums, bass, and other effects at the door to make room for Lacey’s ever-urgent voice. Lines like “Your tongue is a rudder / It steers the whole ship” and “You know that you are not alone / I need you like water in my lungs” as well as others are some of the most memorable quotes in an especially quote-worthy record. Strongly recommended for those who either loved “MvMvE” or prefer Dylan to Fall Out Boy, “Play Crack” is Deja’s best example of stripped down lyricism.
And suddenly it’s over. At 50 minutes, it doesn’t lack in the length department, so you don’t feel too outrageously upset that it doesn’t go on longer. Instead, you’re just sitting there, thinking “Wow. Could that have been improved?” Or…at least, that’s how I recall it. If you’re anything like me, you should be thinking something on those lines, I hope.
Overall, Deja has stuff out there for not just the typical emo listener. A more rebellious rocker can still appreciate the intensity of “Sic Transit” and “Good To Know”, whereas an indie buff can make new friends with “I Will Play My Game” and “Play Crack”, and a post-punk addict can at least acknowledge the coolness of “Okay I Believe You”. As a whole album, it’s a masterpiece, start to finish. I personally guarantee that at least one song can be related perfectly to a problem you’ve had with the opposite sex (excluding the boring breakup motions).
The album of my life? No. There’s a lot on here that doesn’t apply to my life. I’ve never once sold my soul for that of a drunken bar hopper. I’ve never missed home while touring on the other side of the country. I have, however, been able to associate many of my inner workings and feelings with those of Brand New’s Deja Entendu. And so, I’ll have to settle for it being the closest thing I have to being the of the album of my life. Plus, I’m only 16; In ten years’ time, this could and very plausibly will be just that.