Brand New Lays "Waste" on Science Fiction
It can be difficult to parse what a song is "about", where "about" is meant to be a signpost toward something "profound" and "meaningful". I mean really, how many songs do we love that are ostensibly about very little or nothing at all, in that larger sense of the word? Part of the problem is that we ascribe a sense of existential meaning to a song, whether it warrants it or not. The logic says that if a group of respectable artists took the time to write a song, then record it, then include it on an album (which we want to see as a cohesive artistic statement of some sort, to varying degrees of importance), then that song must have passed some inherent early litmus test and that it must have some real meaning beyond just the words, imagery, and musicality.
As a listener, I try not to get bogged down in this too much, if I can help it. My feelings are that understanding the lyrical content of a song is a lot like trying to follow or understand the narrative of someone else's dream: almost always boring as shit, and hardly ever worth the effort. There are definite exceptions to this, of course. There are songs that I am convinced have a lot of capital-M Meaning, and I can find a way to build my own meaning through the flourishes that resonate with me when I can't put an empirical value on what's there. This is to say, I create a meaning if one isn't very clear. And that is every music lover's right.
Brand New have vaulted to the forefront of thinkpiece-generating rock bands over the past couple months since the surprise arrival of their fifth full-length, unironically titled Science Fiction. It turns out that lots of rock writers came of age in the eight years since Daisy and they were all waiting to write a relevant review on one of their favorite bands from high school. I don't begrudge any of them that opportunity, I wish them all the best. If I'd had my own shit together at the time, I would have definitely written 2000 words on it myself. But in reading much of what's out there, I'm realizing that I don't have a lot to add to the conversation. This album has already (and deservedly) been picked apart and examined from every angle - it's like seeing a vivisection happen in real time, and it would be depressing if it weren't so fascinating and worth watching.
That said…I did have some thoughts about the third track from the album, "Waste". The song constantly refers to a "you and I", describing a relationship that seems contentious and unhappy at the very least. The easiest thing to key in on while first listening is songwriter Jesse Lacy's repetition of the refrain "this is the last one" - even on the surface of it, this seems like a very obvious reference to Science Fiction being the final Brand New album (an idea that has been repeatedly floated by the band over the years).
But let's back up for a moment: I want to go back to the sequencing. As I mentioned, "Waste" is track number three on Science Fiction. Track 3 is a slot often reserved on an LP for "the single", or "the entry point", or "the Pop track". "Waste" is really none of these things. It is one of the more dirge-y and country-tinged tracks on the album (note, "one of" them - we are in uncharted territory here for Brand New, folks), it features a lush string accompaniment, and while it definitely has the top-level characteristics of a Brand New song it doesn't necessarily have an analogue anywhere in their discography. The song is kicked off by a sample of a woman screaming; the interjection is an outlier in its brevity, but it flows very well in the album since other songs have similar vocal interludes. But with all those elements taken together, there is basically nothing here that screams "radio hit", so putting it at #3 seems odd before we even descend for our deep dive.
OK, so back to meaning. What does this song mean? I've decided that the question answers itself, after you figure out that central relationship that I mentioned before.
"You and I are stuck in the waves / just talking about our salad days / what a damn lie / you and I are stuck like glue / that's the goddamn truth, baby bye-bye"
This doesn't necessarily echo the typical boy-girl/romantic dynamic. It seems to describe a relationship contingent on and/or stuck in the past (or some embellished idea of a past that did or didn't happen), built on a fluidity between truth and untruth. It is most likely a relationship that is both codependent and counterproductive.
"Every night you were tripping out / in the morning you were coming down / if it's breaking your heart / if nothing is fun / don't lose hope, my son / this is the last one"
But, wait a sec. Who's talking here? Who is the "son" in this scenario? Nothing about this relationship sounds parental up to this point. I can't read any father/son dichotomy in any of this, the overarching drama of the scene is one of commiseration, followed by a promise that the suffering will be over soon.
"Every night you were laid low / it's gonna feel so good to let it go / don't give up, my son / this is the last one"
If this tableau isn't familial and isn't romantic, then what is it? Is the narrator talking to himself? My take is that he is, but not in the way that you might be thinking.
"I'm hoping that in time you can lay down / all this weight you've been carrying around / and maybe one day / you'll find your way"
To me, these lyrics are not strictly a "one-side-of-the-brain-talking-to-the-other" situation. I think Jesse is writing a song…about songwriting. He's conversing with an idea. He's talking about how the past he made for himself in all his lyrics was just as much bullshit as it was truth, and about how he's conflicted by having to live up (or down) to it. He is encouraging himself by promising that he'll never have to put himself through it all again. He is holding himself accountable for every single lie he screamed from a stage, while also acknowledging how difficult it was to put a kernel of truth inside each one of them. As we've seen in some of the band's other songs, Lacy is not the kind of person who let's himself off the hook. Here on "Waste" is where he finally puts it all to rest.
"And he said, 'you are not alone, you are not alone'…"
So I said that some of this meaning lies inside the point-of-view, the question of who the words are addressed to. This is the really amazing part to me, in terms of songwriting. The POV of this song seems to be speaking TO THE NARRATOR. In this way, Lacy is writing about songwriting, from the perspective of the abstract idea. Stepping into those shoes and referring to himself as "son" seems to support this, linguistically - it would make sense for an idea to establish a dominant, patriarchal role over any mere mortal. He has personified this ideal and used it to give himself admonishment, penance, and ultimately deliverance from it. I have seen other interpretations that surmise Lacy is speaking to a former version of himself. This is certainly possible. My interpretation allows for an immediacy that I'm not sure that one allows for. Ultimately, this is on you to decide (as a listener), and whatever interpretation resonates with you the most is the best.
Given that the word "waste" is never used in the lyrics, what additional crumbs of meaning can we extricate from the title of the song? Is he saying that he wasted his life in music? Is he saying that it was a waste of effort, implying that he could have had a successful career without making it as hard on himself as he did? I'm not sure that any of it is that simple, and to be quite honest, that's where I am letting my search for meaning drop. As someone who has, like many of us, devoted many hours to listening to Brand New over the past 15 years (!), it wouldn't be fun to think that the other party to that relationship views that time as a "waste".
Luckily, there's no need to draw any huge conclusions about Brand New's career or discography based on one four-and-a-half minute song. And I like to think that Jesse Lacy would at least have the same respect for his audience as he has for his own mental projection of himself: he's not letting us off the hook that easily.