The Law and Gospel are Raging Inside Me
Revisiting the spirituality of The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me on its tenth anniversary.
Brand New released The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me on November 21, 2006 to very little fanfare. The album wasn’t heavily promoted, and the album’s release was repeatedly pushed back due to deaths in the band members’ families and a notorious leak of the album’s early demos. Brand New’s previous album, 2003’s Deja Entendu, had been wildly successful (Absolute Punk gave Deja Entendu 99/100 in their review), and was itself a musical departure from the formulaic pop-punk of their debut album Your Favorite Weapon. But if Deja Entendu represented one small step in a new musical direction, The Devil and God was a giant leap, transcending not only Brand New’s existing catalogue, but also the emo scene that spawned them. In their April 2007 review, Alternative Press wrote
“[The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me] is quantum leaps above not only Brand New’s prior work…it’s beyond anything that any band in this scene are currently creating. Simply put, Brand New have no peers.”
The writer went on to compare Brand New to Radiohead, and The Devil and God to The Bends.
The Devil and God is a meticulously-crafted musical masterwork that casts off not only the stylistic constraints of early-2000s emo, but also tosses out the tired tropes that still lingered on Deja Entendu. Jesse Lacey’s pet metaphors were still present (shipwrecks) and even prominent (drunk driving) on The Devil and God, but the tone of his writing had gone from sarcastic on Your Favorite Weapon to sardonic on Deja Entendu to downright sinister on The Devil and God.
The results are stunning.
The popular narrative behind The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me is that it’s a breakup record. The story goes that Jesse Lacey had dated Sherri Dupree of the familial pop-rock band Eisley, and had proposed to her before the relationship came to an acrimonious end. The reasons for their split are ambiguous, but fans on forums and message boards speculate wildly nonetheless. More important than the reason for their breakup is the fact that Sherri Dupree — indeed, all the Eisley sisters, and their manager-father — were devoutly religious. Lacey attended Christian school earlier in his life, but not even the most generous assessor would characterize him as being pious. He berates himself repeatedly on The Devil and God for his moral shortcomings — shortcomings that proved to be a roadblock to a successful relationship with Dupree.
But Jesse Lacey’s crisis is about more than the death of a relationship. Using Dupree as a stand-in for God, and their broken relationship as a vehicle through which to discuss mortality and judgment, Lacey gives the listener a front-row seat to his argument with Heaven.
On this record there is condemnation and there are pleas for mercy. There is judgment and there is admission of guilt. There is confession. There is absolution.
There is Law, and there is Gospel.
“I am on the mend,” Lacey insists on opening track Sowing Season. “At least now I can say that I am trying.”
They’re the words of a man whose understanding of God is preoccupied with merit. Standing in the rubble of a broken engagement, Lacey looks around and quotes Rudyard Kipling:
“Is it in you now to watch the things you gave your life to broken / And stoop and build them up with worn-out tools?”
Is there a better metaphor for the Law than a worn-out tool? Formerly functional, now powerless and nearly obsolete. Unable to deliver that which it seems to promise.
It wasn’t enough to save Lacey’s relationship with Sherri Dupree.
“I’m not your friend. I’m not your lover. I’m not your family,” he howls.
“No time to get the seeds into the cold ground / It takes some time to grow anything / Before you put my body in the cold ground / Take some time to warm it with your hands / Before it’s coming to an end.”
The love Lacey once had for the Law looms large on Millstone.
“I used to be such a burning example,” he laments. “I used to sleep without a single stir / ’cause I was about my Father’s work.”
Lacey’s confidence used to be in his devotion, his heart-felt passion. But the heart is fickle, and passions fade.
“I used to pray like God was listening / I used to make my parents proud … I used to know the name of every person I’d kissed / Now I’ve made this bed and I can’t fall asleep in it.”
Driven to desperation, Lacey invokes Luke 17:2:
“I’m my own stone around my neck / Be my breath — there’s nothing I wouldn’t give.”
It shouldn’t surprise that a song about self-destruction is followed immediately by a song called Jesus Christ, in which Lacey deals frankly with the Savior:
“Jesus Christ, I’m not scared to die / I’m a little bit scared of what comes after … do I divide, and pull apart? / ’Cause my bright is too slight to hold back all my dark.”
Impending judgment is always on the back of Lacey’s mind; he brings it to the forefront here:
“I know you’re coming in the night like a thief,” he says. “I know you’re coming for the people like me.”
Which people are those — the condemned, or the absolved?
Lacey’s anxiety over the coming judgment threatens to break him apart on Degausser. It’s keeping him awake: “Goodbye to sleep / I think this staying up is exactly what I need / Take apart your head.”
One of the more interesting Easter eggs in Brand New’s music is the subliminal spoken-word track underneath the choruses on Degausser. Beneath the second chorus, Lacey wonders what kind of God will greet him in death:
“ When I arrive will God be waiting and pacing around his throne? / Will he feel a little Old Testament? / And will he celebrate with fire and brimstone / I admit, I am afraid of the reckoning.”
Lacey knows there’s wrath stored up for him for what he’s done, and he doesn’t see a way out or a possibility of transformation:
“When we were made, we were set apart / If life is a test then I get bad marks / Now some saint got the job of writing down my sins / The storm is coming, the storm is coming in …. I can’t shake this little feeling I’ll never get anything right.”
The further you listen, the more measuring up to anyone’s standard beings to sound like an exercise in futility to Jesse Lacey, whether that standard is Sherri Dupree’s, or her father’s, or God’s, or Lacey’s own standard for himself.
On You Won’t Know Lacey writes to Dupree’s father directly:
“Hey Mr Hangman, go get your rope / Your daughters weren’t careful, I fear that I am a slippery slope / Now even if I lay my head down at night / After a day I got perfectly right / She won’t know.”
Later in the song he sings to Sherri herself:
“They say in heaven there’s no husbands and wives / On the day that I show up they’ll be completely out of their forgiveness supplies / And I can’t use the telephone / To tell you that I’m dead and gone / So you won’t know.”
In an effort to convey the depth of his condemnation, Lacey employs a chilling metaphor on cornerstone track Limousine. It’s the true story of Katie Flynn, a seven-year-old girl from Lacey’s hometown of Long Island. After serving as the flower girl at a wedding, Katie and several family members left the wedding in a limousine, only to be hit head-on by a drunk driver who was driving the wrong way down the highway. Katie was decapitated. The drunk driver lived.
Lacey identifies himself with the drunk driver:
“A beauty supreme, yeah you were right about me / But can I get myself out from underneath this guilt that will crush me? / And in the choir I saw a sad messiah / He was bored and tired of my laments / Said ‘I died for you one time but never again.’”
When the Law crushes a man, it does so completely.
“Nothing gets so bad a whisper from a Father couldn’t fix it,” Lacey writes on Sowing Season. “He whispers like a bridge. It’s a river spanned.”
That whisper is faint on The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me.
The album’s first six songs are a complete picture of a man’s coming to grips with his own damnation. But after the instrumental interlude track Welcome to Bangkok Jesse Lacey employs two very powerful images.
The first is a marriage proposal. The second is a drowning.
On Not the Sun Lacey writes
“Don’t be that note I can’t hold / Don’t be that joke that I told and told ’til it got old / Don’t be that hand ‘round my throat so I can’t breathe / Say you’re my friend but why won’t you be my family? / Be my babe, be my babe.”
The Law is a note that can’t be held. Lacey’s childhood faith, which never matured along with him, is the joke that got old. The coming damnation Lacey has feared through six songs on this album is Christ putting His hand around Lacey’s throat. And it isn’t enough for Lacey to be acquainted with Jesus. He has to marry Him.
This is followed immediately by a drowning metaphor on Luca. The title is a reference to a character in The Godfather who is drowned by members of a rival mob family.
“You never worked well with our group / Not with the faults we found / So we fixed you with cement galoshes / No one can save you now / Unless you have friends among fish / There’ll still be no air to breathe / You could drink up the entire ocean / I’ll still find someone to be everything we know that you’ll never be.”
To what problem is the solution to be drowned to death and replaced by another?
What is a drowning, if not a baptism?
The Apostle Paul wrote, in his letter to the Romans,
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”
What is a baptism, if not a drowning?
Good to know that if I need salvation, all I have to do is die.
Ten years after its release, The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me is more than just the artistic pinnacle of any band to come out of emo. It’s more than the high-water mark of a band with one of the most devoted fanbases in all of music. It’s one of the most gripping and spiritually honest recordings ever put to tape. The Devil and God is more appropriately compared to The Joshua Tree or Slow Train Coming than to Tell All Your Friends or Bleed American.
As the title suggests, The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me is ultimately an album about duality. It’s fitting, then, that the album is both oppressively dark and blissfully soothing; that it whispers and shouts; that it is at once enticing and repellant. It is Jesse Lacey coming to grips with the fact that he contains not multitudes, but two natures; he is both an old and new man; he is torn between sin and grace; he is simul justus et peccator.
The ability to stare one’s demons in the face is one of the marks of the life of grace. It is where freedom is found.
“There is an ember in the heart of the kiln,” Lacey sings on The Archers’ Bows Are Broken. “It’s burning hot with love / Burning out my sins until there’s nothing but dust.”
You can connect with me on Twitter.
The Jesus Christ and Limousine artwork are by Reddit user heyitzcatie.