March 12th: On Brand New’s Deja Entendu
Two themes swim through Brand New’s sophomore album, Deja Entendu. The first, a nautical motif, is announced by the first line of the album’s first song, “Tautou”: “I’m sinking like a stone in the sea.” Two years after the success of their first album (2001’s Your Favorite Weapon), drowning has come to define Brand New. They are in their twenties, they are fresh-faced rockstars, and they are overwhelmed, already on the verge of capsizing, taking on water by the verse—and thus the sinking ship(s) of Deja. The second, more frightening theme of the album arises from the first, and amounts to this: they are doomed, and it is their fault. They have set out from the shore knowing full well how things must end. There is a storm on their horizon, but their course is set, their fate sealed. And they have no one to blame save themselves.
In the wake of Jesse Lacey’s revealed abuse, many fans framed songs off Deja as portents of what was on its way, prophecies not taken seriously until it was far too late. While not entirely off-base, this analysis misses what made Deja great in the first place, and what makes it such a troubling listen so many years later. The same violence, after all, can be attributed to other emo bands from the same era, many of whom have since had reckonings of their own. As Hanif Abdurraqib puts it, these bands crafted their careers out of weaponizing their own sadness, victimizing women in revenge fantasies with no concern for the effects their lyrics might have down the line. But to lump in Brand New with these other Me-Too-ed bands is, I think, reductive. What made Brand New unique was that they were aware of the problems of lyrics like these. Even unambiguously implicative songs like “Okay, I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t” and “Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis” pin blame at least partially on themselves. Lacey’s voice rises to a scream, then breaks off, hoarse. He sings of empty hookups, of his own irresistible charm, but he does not celebrate these things. “I am heaven sent,” he spits, the words dripping with self-directed vitriol. “Don’t you dare forget.”
The doom foreshadowed by the sinking stone of “Tautou,” the loaded harpoon of “I Will Play My Game Beneath the Spin Light,” and the titular melody of “Jaws Theme Swimming” at last arrives in the album’s final two songs. It does so most obviously in “Play Crack the Sky,” the closer, in which Lacey laments a ship that sank “off the tip of Montauk Point.” “This story’s old,” he sings, “but it goes on and on / until we disappear.” Brand New’s path, it seems, is set, their rise already slowing. Their fall is inevitable, and will arrive sooner than anyone except the band members themselves could predict. But for all this song’s portent, it’s the song that precedes it that makes me shiver so many years later. In “Good to Know That If I Ever Need Attention All I Need to Do Is Die,” Lacey sings of both the problem with and the appeal of self-flagellation. All music, but especially emo music, is an act of auto-cannibalism. The artist suffers, then turns around and turns this suffering into art. Again and again in Deja, Lacey seems preternaturally aware of this cycle, singing of the pressures of touring, the sacrifices required by stardom, the responsibilities that come with a burgeoning fandom. And while he rejects much of this lifestyle—or at least tries to—he is also attracted by it. “And I like it the farther I get out,” he repeats in the chorus of “Good to Know.” The shore is receding, the water getting deeper and colder. He is nearing the point of no going back—and part of him is glad.
Listening to Deja Entendu—especially now, nearly two decades later—is an eerie experience. Musically, it remains as energetic and angry as it was when it was released. One can still, if they wish to, shout along to the choruses of “Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis” or “Sic Transit Gloria,” forgetting as they do so the acts that led to Brand New’s end. There is a reason Deja Entendu defined emo for the decade that came after. But the tidal pull of their undoing is inescapable. “Deja entendu,” in French, means “already heard,” and in the wake of what came after, one can only think: yes. Yes, it was. We knew, and it seems Lacey knew, too. For eleven songs, he sang about shipwrecks, and sinking, and self-loathing, and doom. And for fourteen years, we sang the words right back.
March 13th: Twenty-Eight Years At a Chalkboard: Doctor James Bartleby Albatross, the Man Poised to Discover the Truth At the Heart of the Universe, Tells All
Okay, I don’t know what you actually want to know, so I’m just going to get right into it. My advice? Mentally check out the moment you get bored. Or, better yet, the moment your own quest, which is almost surely far more cinematic and pressing than mine, and with which my quest only briefly intersects, demands you no longer linger. We both have better places to be. Or at least I have a better place to be. By which I mean: my chalkboard.
As far as my ongoing mathematical inquiry goes, there is little to say. It is urgent, apocalyptically so. I am losing precious, precious time as we speak.
If I solve my equation—and I am close, Dear Reader, so very close, closer than I have been in twenty-eight years, and I started out terribly close indeed—everything will change. The world will be made anew. I will be freed from my shackles, released from my captivity at the hands of my Handlers, housed in a halfway home in Albuquerque, employed in a ShopRite as a cashier (to make use of my impressive mathematical acumen), set loose to make of my remaining life what I will.
I, and the world, will be free.
It’ll be great. Just you wait. It’ll all be worth it.
At least, that’s what my Handlers say.
Would you like a sample of my work? People are always asking about my work. Never about me. Never James, let alone Jim, let alone Jimmy, or perhaps even Dearest J; no. Anyway. Here is a sample of my work:
And so on. Impressed, are you not? It is important, my Handlers tell me, that I demonstrate to curious parties (e.g., you) the worth of my pursuit via equations like the one above, which is in fact not my work at all, but a formula for the Taylor series, which ranks among AP Calculus BC’s most basic topics. It is important, they say, that I include plenty of symbols and diagrams, Greek letters and such, integrands, triangles, brackets within brackets, even if (especially if) such notation is completely irrelevant to my work. It is important, they remind me (often forcibly), when an investor or investigator pops into the Room, that I stand erect, my arm raised, my eyes narrowed, my glasses askew, my rapidly defecting hair appropriately mussed, in the process of jotting down something or other; it does not matter what, they say—just that I am working, that I am making progress; I am brilliant, I am inspired, I am on the verge. This me, in other words: this me is what they need to see. Do you see?
A day in my life. More or less, it goes like this:
7:00 AM – 7:05 AM: Breakfast (InspiraBar, vanilla).
7:05 AM – 12:00 PM: Math.
12:00 PM – 12:05 PM: Lunch (EnduraBlend, chocolate).
12:05 PM – 5:00 PM: Math.
5:00 PM – 5:15 PM: Dinner (whatever Chef Blake decides to make).
5:15 PM – 7:00 PM: Convalescence, miscellaneous (where/when I am now).
7:00 PM – 8:00 PM: Insanity (with Shaun T.).
8:00 PM – 9:00 PM: Convalescence, miscellaneous.
9:00 PM – 7:00 AM: Off.
It is not a bad life. The hardest parts, by far, are the workouts with Shaun T. (not because of the intensity of the exercises, but because my Handlers have dubbed over Shaun’s encouraging instruction with the recordings of famous mathematicians throughout history, hoping, I can only assume, for a sort of inspiration by osmosis on my behalf) and my nights, which are long.
The Room is not a small space: 32 ½ steps along its long side, 18 ½ steps along its short. There is a bed and a sofa and a television and a PS5 (this job is not without its perks) and my chalkboard and a window that looks out over a desert. I do not know what desert it is. My guess, based upon visible flora and fauna, is the Chihuahan. Far above me, higher even than the catwalk from which my Handlers survey my every purported breakthrough, there is a spotlight, which is trained on my chalkboard. The attached bathroom does not have a door, and is designed in such a way that I may still gaze upon my chalkboard whilst evacuating my bowels or taking a shower. It is important, my Handlers remind me, that I am always looking at my chalkboard, straining my aching brain, ever on the bleeding edge of Truth, capital t.
There is little else to say, other than to assure you that, although I am not happy, I am also not precisely sad. All art requires a sacrifice, and this is mine. I stand at my chalkboard for ten hours a day. I do math. Or, at least, I pretend to do math: I linger over an epsilon’s central zigzag; I trace the arc of an omega over the course of hours, sometimes days. It is a task, what I do, but it is also a craft. My arm has long since ceased to ache. When, many years ago, at the start of my residency, I discovered the truth at the heart of the universe—that this was all a coil of meaningless, that you and I were alone, random crumbs of self-awareness amidst chaos—my Handlers told me I was wrong. They told me to keep going. To slow down. To go on. And so this is what I do. I search for a different truth than the truth I’ve found. I drink my EnduraBlend. I go on.
March 14th: This piece was submitted somewhere! Fingers crossed!
March 15th: An Open Letter to My Holographic Charizard Pokémon Card
Dear Holographic Charizard Pokémon Card (unlimited edition),
Where to begin? How to begin? You are my beginning; you are my end. My alpha and my omega. You are the first Pokémon card I ever owned, and you will be the last. Your original price was in the ballpark of twenty dollars (you were part of the standard starter deck), and you can now expect to be sold on eBay for a price more or less the same. If for nothing else, holographic Charizard Pokémon card, I thank you for your consistency. You have seen me through darker days than I can say.
That being said, in the interest of full disclosure, I feel obligated to express my frustration as to your disappointingly small worth as a collector’s item. When I kept you (over, say, lowly Bulbasaur, or dogeared Mewtwo), thereby sparing you from the Cheeto-fingered predations of my cousin (Little Robbie; may you shudder at his name), it was not out of a preference for you over your 200-odd fellows. No, holographic Charizard, my interest—I will be honest—was a selfish one: I expected you to accumulate value as the relentless plod of time ground down my own. One day, you would pay off my mortgage on a three-bath Colonial just like the one in which I grew up, not to mention the first two years of my second child’s (Abigail, I would name her) schooling at Yale. Perhaps—if I married late, or if you proved even more exceptional than Yahoo told 2006 Colin you would one be—you would pay for even more: the lives of my children, say. And their children, too.
To be clear, I am not saying your relative worthlessness is in any way your fault. As you sat, dusty and safe, at the bottom of the bottom drawer of my nightstand, you could not have known you were supposed to be appreciating. A 1st-edition Charizard, shadowless—are you aware of this?—can sell, in 2021, for upwards of 100,000 dollars. It was on me to assure you that my abandonment of you was not out of indifference, let alone hate. Like Ash’s mother in Pokémon: The Movie 2000, I was only trying to protect you. It pains me to no end that this was not clear.
That being said, to paraphrase one of my favorite AA sayings: just because something is not your fault, that doesn’t mean it’s not your responsibility. You were unable, being a card, to note the lack of a label that read “1st edition” on your left edge, but this does not excuse you from making this absence more obvious. You could have poked out from beneath my smuggled raspberry-lemonade Svedka—just so, yes, just so I could glimpse the truth of your lowborn essence—or otherwise shifted in such a way that would have revealed to me your utter mundanity. Instead, holographically resplendent, a powerful 120-hit-point beast, you allowed me to endure in my mistaken hope, to remain ignorant of the fact that you were as common as the dust beneath which you lay.
I loved you, Charizard. Even more than I claimed to love those lovely, equally naive souls I would take into our room in later years, or the weed I would store above you, tucked away within a rusty Yu-Gi-Oh! tin. You meant the world to me, Charizard. And then I found out you were worth no more than between twenty and twenty-five dollars, given you sold in the first place, which was far from guaranteed.
And so now I release you, holographic Charizard Pokémon card. I will always think of you fondly, and remain open to being wooed by a dinner or two, as long as it’s on you.
March 16th: Another subbed piece!
March 17th: Hey, It’s Me, Gum Kid. You Know, from High School? Yes, I Still Have Gum, and Yes, I Still Would Like to Be Your Friend
Hey! It’s been a while, I know. The last time I saw you was in Ms. Graborski’s class, I think? AP Physics C? Anyway, you probably don’t remember me, or at least my real name (Jeremy). It’s been decades, and the details of those days, unlike the gum I so graciously gave you, have not outlasted the passage of the intervening years.
Not to worry, though. I’m still the Gum Kid, through and through. I’m here for you, a pack of 5 React (the mint kind) open and ready to share, no sweat. I’m always available, buddy. Nothing but a Facebook search away.
Speaking of which, congrats on the big news! Soren is a handsome name. Sophia will be thrilled to have a little brother to play with, I imagine. They’ll be in middle school (and in need of a gum hookup!) before you know it. So when the time comes, and if you don’t feel like stopping at 7-Eleven or ShopRite or almost anywhere else, you know who to call.
As far as what I’m up to? Nothing spectacular, truth be told. I was with Lockheed for a while, but a couple years ago I made the trip south to Cape Canaveral. NASA treats their employees well—good benefits, 99th-percentile pay. My boys (Orbit and Mentos) haven’t dined on less than the finest Pacific salmon in over a year. It’s a life.
The one problem with this situation, it must be said, is NASA’s lack of a need for a Gum Kid. (Or, at this point in my life, a Gum Middle-Aged Man.) Aerospace engineers and astronauts alike are people who’ve made a career of always being prepared. Anyone who wants gum has it with them already, which leaves me—what, exactly? The loser with hundreds of packs of gum in his filing cabinet, ordered by both brand and flavor profile: mints with mints, fruits with fruits? Some nobody who has recently begun working on a cabinet labeled “Specialty Gum,” which includes products like Hubba Bubba Max, Trident Layers, Big League Chew, and novelty gumballs shaped and flavored to resemble tiny, chewy meatballs?
No, I’ve decided. That’s not me. Which brings me to my reason for reaching out—not only to you, but to every one of our fellow alumni who once depended upon my gum to freshen their days. The most basic need of Man is to feel meaningful, to know that one has a purpose in this fallen world, and I realized long ago that my purpose is to give out gum to those in need. Once upon a time, it was my predisposition to have gum on hand in another’s time of need that defined me. Without gum, I would have never made the few friends I did, never met my first love (Christina T., whom I wooed with Juicy Fruit). Without gum, I would have had no one. And now that no one needs gum anymore, I am no one at all.
And so I am asking you, Chris—pleading with you, really—to find it in your heart to need my gum once more. I possess it in abundance, and I will cover all shipping costs. As a matter of fact, I will pay you to take this gum off my hands. Financially, Orbit and Mentos and I are set up nicely, and I don’t expect our tight-knit trio to be expanding any time soon.
Only love (and gum),
Gum Kid (Jeremy D.)
March 18th: Submitted somewhere!