Suffering from a variety of obsessive-compulsive disorder that goes by the clinical name “scrupulosity,” I spent ages twelve through fourteen in a state of religious paranoia, trying to avoid divine punishment by nervously carried out rituals—repeated prayers, meticulous consultation of holy texts. Engaged in the never-ending work of forestalling or correcting sinfulness and impurity, I missed the pop-punk phase endemic to the early-aughts teenage experience. I had little use for songs about girls, and even less for songs about emotions. I expended a great deal of energy avoiding both.
I heard my first Brand New song when I was twenty. On the way home from hockey practice, my roommate Scott played a track named after the messiah I’d spent much of my childhood straining to emulate and impress. The lonely, hypomanic howl of “Jesus Christ” validated the vague and self-pitying sadness of three homesick roommates living in an apartment in Wilkes-Barre nestled along the silk road of the East Coast meth trade. The sky was endlessly gray. Police raided neighboring buildings biweekly. To the song’s question “Do you believe you’re missing out, that everything good is happening somewhere else?” we could all reply with an emphatic yes.
By this time, I’d been clean of religiosity for seven years. I was sinning happily, drinking three grape Four Lokos at the team party every Sunday night, making an overstimulated ass of myself as a matter of routine. On weekdays I was texting girls from back home who I knew liked me enough to respond, stoking their romantic hopes in order to elicit emotional comfort I had no intention of reciprocating. On Wednesday nights I was playing “the song game,” in which R.J. and I each picked three songs and drank our way through a twelve pack at a beer-per-song clip. After Scott played it in the car, “Jesus Christ” was always on the playlist.
“Jesus Christ” had been the most popular track on Brand New’s 2006 album, The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me. A critically lauded departure from the band’s post-punk roots, Devil and God traded power chord–driven songs about exes for distortion-heavy expressions of regret and serotonin-deprived frustration. As its name suggests, the album grapples anxiously with religious themes, particularly the loss of innocence. The songs evoke an ongoing struggle to save a waning light, a desperate clawing for a halcyon self.
As R.J. and I worked our way through the rest of Devil and God, other songs trickled on to the song game playlists, until the whole format collapsed and we were just drinking while listening to Brand New. Even through the emotional anesthetic of six Natty Lights, Devil and God managed to haunt me, its chill both disquieting and beckoning. The hair stood up on my arms when, on “Millstone,” frontman Jesse Lacey lamented in a voice that sounded both angry and close to tears:
I used to be such a burning example
I used to be so original
I used to care, I was being careful
Made sure I showed it to those that I loved
It stood up again when he sang in the next verse:
I used to pray that God was listening
I used to make my parents proud
Sung by another living soul over lashing drums, those words gave sudden, violent expression to a repressed guilt I had always felt through the wall, like a fire in a neighboring room. They clarified a feeling of regret that until then had only existed in the abstract—a vague sense that I’d deviated too far from the course of the young boy who’d been concerned not just about divine punishment but also about how his actions affected others; who’d regularly give away half of his lunch to students who had forgotten or not liked theirs; who’d been awarded Student of the Marking Period for his kindness, compulsive though it was. “Millstone” produced a revelation: there had been love tied up in the fear I’d left behind.
With revelation came eschatology. When Lacey yelled “This ship of fools I’m on will sink,” it illuminated another vague conviction: that this path had an impending terminus, a climax; that I was moving toward a rock bottom. This was both comforting and terrible. Part of me welcomed the annihilation of my lesser self; another part cowered at the return of my better one.
I was twenty-two when the dissonance finally reached an infernal crescendo. Over the course of a summer through which I was unusually reckless with alcohol and the feelings of others, my actions built up until they breached my ability to compartmentalize and engulfed me in a guilt immune to my usual distractions and justifications. I was drinking to incoherence weekly, getting up to things I’ve read it would be a sin to cop to on the internet. I felt I’d slid down a steep, sludgy slope into a new layer of immorality—an abyss where my younger self was in imminent danger of being lost for good, my conduit to redemption finally destroyed, my damnation guaranteed. Rebirth felt like my only escape. Feeling unready to make a specific religious commitment, I decided that I believed in the Abrahamic God, and that I’d make a more sincere and structured effort to live as He’d intended me to. I stopped drinking, started praying again.
Five years later, Lacey was accused of sexual misconduct: in 2002, in his mid-twenties, he’d had sexual online relationships with underage fans. In his apology, published on Brand New’s Facebook page, he described a history of infidelity and addiction throughout which he’d detached from himself and used people in the unfeeling way one might use a pill—to achieve further numbness. Writing about his efforts to rehabilitate himself in the years since, he expressed in writing what Devil and God did in song a decade earlier: “I do not stand in defense of myself nor do I forgive myself.”
I haven’t listened to Devil and God in years, in part for fear of reliving my own sins. I’m mostly happy with the person I’ve become, and I don’t like to look back too far. But summer’s wane is insistent. The chill in the air awakens chains of feeling and memory that bring me back to that shared apartment in Wilkes-Barre, that remind me that the right path must be maintained with vigilance. As Lacey wrote in his apology, “The fact remains that none of us gets to put up a wall between who we are and who we were.”
— Parker Carroll
Brooklyn, day 83