This is the first entry in a series of posts that I’ll be making about albums that are important to me. Either I count them among my favourites or they have influenced the way I think about music. First up: Brand New’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me.

Five seconds. That’s how it takes for The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me to obliterate any preconceived notions that a listener may have about Brand New. Opening track “Sowing Season” begins with a softly strummed electric guitar line while singer and rhythm guitarist Jesse Lacey half-mumbles, “Was losing all my friends / Was losing them to drinking and to driving.” The song’s first few moments are such a departure from the band’s previous work that they undoubtedly caused more than a few double takes back in 2006 when Devil and God first came out. Later, “Sowing Season” launches into its hook, which is merely Lacey yelping “Yeah!” over a barrage of distorted guitars. Simple, yet effective. How is this the same band that recorded “Jude Law and a Semester Abroad?”

It’s easy to dismiss Devil and God as just another step on Brand New’s journey through the music industry, especially in a world where bands are expected – nay, required – to evolve from album to album, lest they be criticized for “playing it safe” or “writing the same song over and over again.” However, what’s impressive about Devil and God is that it’s not an incremental shift, but rather a radical change in the band’s sound. And somehow, the entire thing feels natural, not a deliberate, calculated attempt to latch onto the latest musical fad.

There are few albums that can jump from gorgeously delicate to harshly brutal in just a beat without seeming to yell, “Look ma! We can do loud and soft!” But somehow, Devil and God manages to do so effortlessly and gracefully. It’s an album steeped in hopelessness and despair, but also one that doesn’t drown in tedium. Sometimes, those emotions manifest themselves as quiet desperation (“Jesus”), and other times, as unadulterated anger (“You Won’t Know”).

It’s not as if Brand New hadn’t dealt with those emotions before. Your Favorite Weapon was basically a giant, angry letter to an ex-girlfriend, and Deja Entendu’s “I Will Play My Game Beneath The Spin Light” and “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot” provided the opportunity for Lacey to wallow in self-pity and depression. But the band’s lyrical approach was more direct back then. “I Will Play My Game Beneath The Spin Light” was clearly about the rigours of touring, for example. Devil and God takes a more cryptic tack, drawing the listener in with its ambiguity, but never being vague to the point of dealing in cliché. The album draws an outline with its words; listeners colour it in with their own experiences.

But Devil and God wouldn’t succeed on lyrics alone. Lacey’s words are backed up by their musical counterparts. In “Degausser,” Lacey sings, “The storm is coming, the storm is coming in,” and then the entire band kicks in, bassist Garrett Tierney sliding into the aural tempest with surprising ferocity. The album is replete with screeching guitars and pounding drums, as if lead guitarist Vincent Accardi and drummer Brian Lane poured all of their fury and hatred into their instruments. But they also show remarkable restraint and are capable of crafting beautiful, delicate melodies and rhythms as well. “Jesus” is built on a simple, repeating guitar motif. But there’s more melancholy in those four notes than in almost any epic shredfest of a guitar solo.

That’s not to say that Brand New doesn’t engage in its fair share of virtuosity. Tierney plays a complex, angular bass line in “Degausser,” and “Limousine (MS Rebridge)” features the closest thing to a guitar solo that you’ll ever hear on a Brand New record. “The Archers’ Bows Have Broken” rests on an intricate drum beat whose repeated snare hits conjure up images of the song’s political subject matter. At every twist and turn, Devil and God surprises its listeners with sonically challenging material.

After experiencing the album in its entirety, listeners will be exhausted. Devil and God can be draining to listen to. It’s raw, it’s powerful, and it’s emotional. But most of all, it’s surprising. Only vestiges of the band’s pop-punk past are noticeable on the album (particularly in “Not the Sun” and “The Archers’ Bows Have Broken”). The album deals in plaintive, anguished alternative and noise rock. But it’s not all gloom and sorrow. As the final notes of the haunting, gorgeous album closer “Handcuffs” die away, Lacey gives his guitar one last strum, as if to end the album with a modicum of hope.

That one hopeful note augured a bright future for Brand New, and indeed they went on to have more success. Their next album, Daisy, became their highest-charting release in the United States. It’s a solid album in its own right, but The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me still stands as the pinnacle of the band’s achievement. It’s the rare album that departs from previous works and shocks fans with its originality while still impressing them with something better than they could have ever imagined. The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me is a truly exceptional album from start to finish, and one that I’ll certainly be listening to for years to come.

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