Me, Brand New and separating art from its creators

In the summer of 2017 the fifth album from Brand New finally arrived. It was, even then, expected to be their last, and its critical and commercial success reflected the love the band enjoyed all over the world.

Science Fiction was released two days after it was announced, with a tour to follow. It was to be Brand New’s swansong, the triumphant finale of a truly iconic band going out in a blaze of glory.

Then they got #cancelled.

The tour got binned. Science Fiction dropped off the face of the earth. Just like that, Brand New were gone. Jesse Lacey, the frontman whose vision and incisiveness made his band what it became, was to blame.

Like too many of his peers at the end of 2017, Lacey faced accusations of sexual misconduct involving fans of the band. His planned bow crumbled around him in a matter of days.

Lacey’s apology – which, to be clear, was piss poor – was an unwelcome glimpse into his soul. It said sorry on the surface but it was a masterclass in prolific use of I and me and my.

There he was, coursing like blood through his mea culpa: the same flawed Jesse Lacey that had access to such darkness in his art. It wasn’t some flipside, some underbelly. It was an insight into a narcissist, a genius and a pest.

When Lacey was unable to deny or adequately apologise for the things he was accused of doing, he lost the right to a defence from his fans.

I lost my favourite band, their creative peak and their farewell tour.

Neither Lacey nor his fans around the globe were the victims of Brand New’s demise. It’s important to remember that. But, eighteen months on, I still find myself drifting from time to time into a reflection on what Brand New means to me in 2019.

What Lacey was accused of is wrong. His apology was a mess. The tour withdrawals of Kevin Devine and the support band, Martha, were the right thing to do. I do not condone anything about Lacey’s alleged conduct or his response to those allegations.

Brand New will never again be what they were because their leading light was extinguished in the most disgusting circumstances, with only himself to blame. Lacey does not have my respect.

If the narcissist and the genius cannot be separated, can the art that was a product of their intersection be uncoupled from the behaviour of the man who created it?

Remfry Dedman asked that increasingly familiar question back in March, in the aftermath of Finding Neverland.

He identified the crucial truth: listen to whatever you fucking want to listen to. If you’re uncomfortable listening to the music of a deviant scumbag like Michael Jackson, don’t. If you can reconcile the two in your own mind, fill your boots.

Jackson the manchild and Jackson the performer are, I’d argue, easily separable. But the severity of the allegations against him bring into play a third possibility, namely that separating the art from the artist isn’t really the issue at hand.

Dedman lists a host of other artists with various allegations to their names. The most topical is R. Kelly, whose past is catching up with him as I write. His music is abominable shite in any case. In its vacuousness it disconnects from what he’s been accused of doing and any other part of meaningful reality.

It is empty, pointless noise propagated by a singer who failed to respond or attend court when a civil case was brought against him for having sex with a minor. His music has never been a window on the real R. Kelly.

This case is particularly tricky because the brilliance of Brand New lurked specifically in its shadows.

Lacey’s negative characteristics pulsed through every note and every word, his unnerving ability to unlock the inner reaches of the human condition giving his music the rawness that connected with people.

When his band was #cancelled, Lacey’s misogyny was put under the microscope and, later, past lyrics attributed to it. Even the most ardent Lacey fan would struggle to deny that there were themes in Brand New’s music that weren’t pleasant.

But they didn’t become unpleasant because of the allegations that were made, nor were they hidden in any way.

Perhaps we were too generous in accepting Lacey’s lyrics as extreme abstract expressions, extrapolated exaggerations of his feelings of anger, desperation, rejection and helplessness that are, at their core, pretty relatable.

He’s an artist, after all. His songs weren’t a manifesto for abusive behaviour; they were angst writ large, generalised lashing out against everything and everyone.

Crucially, they were always like that. I wasn’t listening to the freshly released Deja Entendu under the illusion that the guy singing was someone I’d want my daughter to marry. That didn’t suddenly occur to me 15 years later. The dude was fucked up and he connected with people who were fucked up too.

What was new to most – not all – of Brand New’s fans in 2017 was not words, but deeds. What Lacey allegedly did made me question my love for his music and the memories it gave me.

It’s a tricky and, sadly, frequently debated issue. Can music be enjoyed when the artist is despised? Are the life moments that were soundtracked by a band lost or tainted because of the transgressions of the people who made it?

In my life Brand New were more than just my favourite band. They grew artistically as I developed as a person and a music fan. Album by album by album they gave me music that reflected by taste at that time.

They were the first band I went to see with my brother. Standing in the Brixton Academy with him, watching a hooded Lacey perform songs from The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me before we’d heard them on record, was an experience I’ll take to the grave.

Years later, in the O2 in London, Brand New supported Biffy Clyro and ended their set with a lengthened performance of ‘You Won’t Know’. It was stunning – better than anything I’ve ever seen or heard in music. It was unforgettable.

Some of his lyrics are pretty disturbing in their new light, but are these real moments tarnished because of the awful things Lacey was alleged to have done and hasn’t been able to deny?

I’ve been asking myself that question now for the better part of two years. I still haven’t quite made up my mind.

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Chris Nee