Brand New’s newest release truly is a mixed bag; the songs sound like they were written by two or three different bands and put together into a compilation. Of those songs, there are some that are truly excellent – for me, highlights of the year so far – as well as some that I’ll never listen to again. The most obvious attempt to make the collection of songs feel like a cohesive album just makes the unusual diversity more jarringly obvious. It is as though Brand New realised that this is more a collection of songs than an album, and instead of running with it, used speech sample fillers to create a unity that just emphasises how little unity there is without them.
This isn’t the real issue though. More pernicious is the tonal jarring that these fillers create. To use a pejorative term without meaning the negative connotations: much prog rock is cast as ‘pretentious’. This means that speech samples and overriding concepts fit into albums without seeming out of place. Here, though, the songs aren’t ‘pretentious’, sprawling prog, they’re alt-rock, and so the surrounding artistic element doesn’t seem to fit.
The implication of the comment that the songs themselves are not ‘art’ may seem overly harsh here. There is experimentation, genre mixing, and complexity of a fair amount on Science Fiction. It takes form of adding more to the basic alt-rock structure rather than playing with song structures themselves though. Sometimes, this really works: there is a great moment in “Same Logic/Teeth” where classical guitar is played alongside a fuzzed out electric, and another as the chorus of “In The Water” is raised above standard rock through banjo twiddling and organs in the background. Sometimes, it really doesn’t and comes across like the over-complexity of a busy hand that does not know when to stop adding. The choir echoing the refrain of “Desert”, for example, just don’t make sense next to an otherwise stomping country dirge that could have been left stripped back.
Alongside the experimentation is some straight up, standard alt-rock, and the unimaginative and repetitious droning that label implies. The chorus of “No Control” is just the phrase ‘no control’ repeated four times, and “Can’t Get It Out” is one of those songs where the bass line is the same throughout with the chorus varied only by distorted guitars power-chording the same riff over the top. This isn’t the case for every alt-rock song on the album – “Waste” sounds like something The National could have written, with the addition of one of the best anthemic choruses you’re likely to hear anytime soon. At it’s core though, a good number of the songs on Science Fiction are just standard alt-rock fare, and the factor distinguishing between them is whether they are just that, or whether they have been over complicated by the addition of unneeded parts. For all that, this is an album you should pick up and take a listen to. “Lit Me Up” and “Could Never Be Heaven Without You” in particular deserve your attention.
“Lit Me Up” is a complete oddity. It sounds nothing like the rest of Science Fiction, with its heavily processed bass and reverb laden clean guitars. It sounds like downbeat electronic music, in contrast to the very few electronic elements used on the rest of the album. The thing is, this is the best song on there. It’s both a very odd choice of an album opener – it introduces the album as something it most definitely is not, and it leaves you wondering if Brand New had one excellent idea before lapsing into the same formula as before. The song is atmospheric, catchy, haunting, and beautiful. It doesn’t stick to a standard song structure. If the album was full of songs like this, it’d be an album of the year contender.
I’m glad that Science Fiction isn’t just songs like “Lit Me Up” though, because if it was, we wouldn’t have “Could Never Be Heaven”. This largely acoustic piece is graced by touching lyrics that revolve around an excellently phrased bridge part, over folky guitars. I can’t get enough of it. Brand New can write truly amazing songs. They can also write decent songs, and mediocre ones too, in a whole variety of genres. On Science Fiction, all those songs are mixed together into a package that’s worth picking up, but probably not worth listening to all the way through.
Notable Tracks: “Lit Me Up”; “Could Never Be Heaven”; “Desert”
FFO: Arctic Monkeys, Midlake, The National