A lot has happened since the release of Brand New’s presumed swan song, Science Fiction. Released just about one year ago (August 17, 2017), the record was initially received to widespread acclaim. It shot to #1 on the Billboard chart, a first in band history despite nonchalantly dropping the album – unannounced – after an eight year absence. It garnered rave reviews. Noisey published an article entitled I Will Fight for Brand New to Be Crowned the Best Band of a Generation. Pitchfork named it Best New Music. The list of accomplishments go on and on. We all know how fleeting that success was though; Brand New’s legacy came to a screeching halt on November 10th when allegations of sexual misconduct arose against front man Jesse Lacey, which were all but confirmed by him a day later when he issued a lengthy response that vaguely acknowledged wrongdoing ( “I am sorry for how I have hurt people, mistreated them, lied, and cheated…”), spoke on the help he has sought since the time of those actions (the claims are from when he was 24…Lacey is now 40), and spoke on repentance (“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”). Then, just like the eight years that led up to Science Fiction, the band went radio silent. And so did most of their fans.
So why dredge this topic up again? It’s not to force victims to relive their anguish, and it’s definitely not to pardon Lacey. A lot can be learned about an artist through her/his faults. Anyone who heard how tortured Lacey sounded during the group’s crowning achievement, 2006’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, can infer that a passion so fiery and demeanor so burdened are not feigned. In other words, it’s obvious that Lacey was messed up. It didn’t take Daisy three years later to confirm that he had already resigned his fate to total damnation (“I’m on my way to hell”). At the time, the two albums were hailed as artistic statements achieved through unprecedented growth…but perhaps there was a little more to it. After all, it’s not like Lacey’s outlook was nearly as bleak on any of the albums that came beforehand. Something changed him.
Lacey’s misconduct at the age of 24 places us back in 2002-2003, or approximately around the release of their breakout sophomore record Deja Entendu. That album skyrocketed Brand New’s popularity, and placed them all over MTV, late night talk shows, alternative radio stations, and the like. Deja was witty and full of tongue-in-cheek self-depreciation, but it’s clear that Lacey was still as confident as ever – a far cry from the bleak depression of every Brand New album that followed. The impact of fame, especially on young adults who may not know how to cope with it, is not always good – in fact, it is almost ubiquitously negative. Lacey clearly did not handle his quick rise to stardom very well, nor with the sense of stewardship and responsibility that one should. That’s why he – and deserved or not, his fellow bandmates – find themselves in their current predicament.
It’s important to tread lightly here, because in no way is my intention to excuse Jesse’s actions or take the attention away from the victims. With that said, the purpose of this article is to take a closer look at the burden of transgression, the journey that is self-improvement, and the possibility of forgiveness – not from others, but for oneself. Because even though we are under no obligation to forgive Lacey – and quite frankly, you should still be mad – there comes a certain point where endless berating does more harm than good. Nobody is infallible, and while certain acts are most definitely worse than others, we all deserve – if not forgiveness – a chance to be left alone so that we can look ourselves in the mirror and, maybe one day, come to peace with ourselves.
As I previously alluded to, the stark contrast between Deja Entendu and The Devil and God was very likely much more than just a stylistic revolution. Lacey internalized everything and poured it into his music – from the deaths of various family members/close friends to questions about mortality. No matter how high you are on your own success and virtual scene-God syndrome, you know that 24 and 15 doesn’t add up. Caving to his addictions, Lacey continued to act against his better judgment. ‘Millstone’ drops some very telling verses, from the plain-in-hindsight “I used to know the name of every person I kissed / Now I made this bed and I can’t fall asleep in it” to the more difficult to discern “running from that mistake” at the end of the bridge around 2:40 in. The opening stanza to ‘Jesus Christ’ puts Lacey’s guilt front and center: “Jesus Christ, that’s a pretty face…If they don’t put me away, well, it’ll be a miracle.” If you are feeling a bit nauseated in revisiting these lines, you aren’t the only one. However, it’s clear that Lacey felt regret over his sins the whole time. Whereas Deja Entendu‘s ‘Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis’ casually talks about blatant misconduct, there’s nothing like that on The Devil and God. You can, however, feel the weight of his previous decisions hanging around his neck like heavy chains – this burden he’s forced to carry because he’s too damn afraid to tell the truth to his family, friends, and fans. It’s enough to make you wonder if that’s not what ‘Handcuffs’ was about, when he sings “It’s hard to be the better man, when you’re still lying.” We all know what it’s like to have a dark secret. This was Jesse’s, and it was bad enough that he knew his spiritual well-being was at stake. In his open letter to Jesus, he laments “I know you’re coming for the people like me.”
In addition to the [deserved] crippling guilt, there’s another aspect to Lacey’s songwriting that became all too apparent post-allegation(s). He is fixated – nay, obsessed – with the idea of a “day of reckoning”; this moment when everything comes crashing down and puts an end to it all. In the moment – pre-allegation – it was always assumed that Jesse’s religious upbringing was showing its colors with themes of biblical revelations, or the apocalypse. That may still be the case, but part of me thinks that there’s another explanation that is far more personal, but just as dark. On ‘Degausser’, he cautions that “the storm is coming”, but that is a mere precursor to the sort of imagery that Daisy brings forth. Three years later, Jesse can still be heard suffering within his own mind, only this time screaming for his immortal soul. It’s most obvious within the record’s overall aesthetics: it simply sounds dead inside. Lyrically Lacey expounds upon the idea of all things ending: on ‘Vices’ the forest burns; on the third bridge of ‘At The Bottom’ he wails, ” I stole bricks from the dam almost every day, now I’m drowning in the flood I made / Explain myself to me on the other side, I’m gonna want some answers when I die”; on ‘Daisy’ he details feeling trapped with his sins – “I’m a fugitive that has no legs to run” – as well as an overwhelming desire for cleansing, “If the sky opened up and started pouring rain, like he knew it was time to start things over again / It’d be all right, it’s all right…it’d be easier that way.” Indeed, the album is a tornado of self-damnation that culminates in Noro’s recognizable chorus of “I’m on my way to hell.” Still, he seems predisposed to accepting that fate as opposed to facing his transgressions head-on in the real world.
This brings us full circle to Science Fiction, and I assure you I’m going somewhere with this so bear with me. But first, it’s necessary to explain what I feel has always been a prophetic nature in Brand New’s music and Lacey’s lyrics. It’s interesting how Jesse predicted future events surrounding himself and the band, unbeknownst to him at the time of writing the song. Take ‘Soco Amaretto Lime’ for example, the closing track of the band’s 2000 debut Your Favorite Weapon, where Lacey sings endearingly about his youth, “We’re gonna stay 18 forever.” Fast forward to the present day, where the band has almost certainly met its demise – whether as a result of the misconduct or by their own planned disbandment – and you have a music group that will, quite literally, be 18 forever. The eerie factoid that I want to focus on, though, comes from Science Fiction‘s slow burning opener, ‘Lit Me Up’ – a track that I actually believe presents a [somewhat] real possibility Lacey knew in advance that he was about to be outed. We don’t know everything that goes on behind the scenes – it’s possible that contact with some of these victims was ramping up again, perhaps initiated by them in a way that he felt threatened by. Maybe they felt emboldened and empowered in knowing that people would finally hear them out thanks to Me Too. Maybe former guitar tech Brian Diaz had a beef with Lacey (if so, understandably) and somehow Lacey caught wind of the fact that he was going to stir things up. I know it sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory (and yeah, there’s a 99% chance it is), but just read these lyrics and decide for yourself. Even if he didn’t know, it’s at least another set of lyrics that turned out to be chillingly prophetic. Lacey openly talks about burning like a witch in a Puritan town, and then goes down months later as part of said #metoo movement, which many detractors still refer to as “a witch hunt.”
It lit me up and I burned from the inside out
Yeah, I burned like a witch in a Puritan town
It lit me…
It was a good dream
Note the final line. Considering how long Lacey tortured himself over his actions – it would make sense that he would actually be relieved to finally pay for his crimes. After all, the weight of being alone with his thoughts and sins for nearly two decades was clearly eating away at him, at least if the music he created for the better part of his career serves as even the slightest indicator. If he was writing about a dream in which he got exposed for his actions, that last line makes it sound like he wanted it to happen because it would be a burden lifted, that stone finally removed from around his neck…and he could finally move on from his guilt. There’s a certain liberation that comes from setting the truth free, even if it means that you have to finally own up to your actions.
Earlier in this article, I stated that it would be about “the burden of transgression, the journey that is self-improvement, and the possibility of forgiveness – not from others, but for oneself.” Right now it probably feels like we’ve strayed from that message, but I beg you to look closer. The burden of Lacey’s acts has been a part of who he is for the last 16 years, maybe even longer. The journey of overcoming those horrid decisions and that wicked, deceitful lifestyle has come double fold – (1) in cathartic healing through music and (2) finding out what true love and responsibility is through marriage and fatherhood. Has he forgiven himself? We can’t possibly know the answer to that, but I’d still venture a guess at “no.” Jesse knows that he’s damaged the lives of several young women, possibly including others that we are not aware of. He’s betrayed the trust of so many fans. Still, I take solace in a couple little things. The Jesse Lacey of 2018 is not the same person that basically committed grooming in 2002. Rather than, in essence, bragging about sexual misdeeds (again, Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis), he writes lyrics that show remorse and a desire to stop hurting others, even if it means “burning from the inside out.” Maybe I’m putting way too much stock in lyrics…after all, this has not a damn thing to do with the music anymore. Still, trying to find hope for someone that you once looked up to like nobody else in the music industry somehow gives me hope as well. Views change, and people can improve on toxic attitudes that they never even knew they had until they were cut deep enough for them to be bleed on out.
Some things just need to burn.