Modest Mouse’s name today is often associated with their most successful single “Float On” from their 2004 album Good News For People Who Love Bad News, something that frustrates basically every Modest Mouse fan out there. This is because before the radio airplay Modest Mouse was still an extremely relevant band within the Alternative Rock genre, with This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About proving to be an extremely successful debut album and their third album The Moon And Antarctica fascinating many music critics and showcasing a lighter sound alongside the philosophical thoughts about religion and creation which Brock had to offer. These early albums were both created with the “classic” Modest Mouse lineup that featured Isaac Brock on vocals and guitar, Eric Judy on bass and Jeremiah Green on the drums, an extremely consolidated lineup but one that had tremendous range and capability. This is why although many point to The Moon and Antarctica as their best album, my personal favorite is their 2nd album, The Lonesome Crowded West, which captures the wide range of sounds the band is capable of and defined them as a premiere alternative rock group of the era. The album sometimes gets viewed as a concept album because of the recurring themes of both the destruction of the west to build mini-malls and religious topics, but those are really common Modest Mouse topics that the band uses on many of their tracks outside of LCW as well, so it’s a bit of a misguided label.
Brock is one of the better songwriters you’ll find, he has a tendency to make lyrics about self-cancelling actions such as the opening lines to the album of “From the top of the ocean/To the bottom of the sky” while also usually taking an anti-religious stance in his lyrics. In that way it’s semi-formulaic, but it must be understand that you’re not hearing the same thing in each of the songs. Rather, the repeated themes hammer home the point that you are listening to a twenty two year old who’s still finding out what to believe in, and all that he’s really confident in at this point is what he doesn’t (I’m a Camus fan). For a good example of the role of religion in their songs you can look at album closer “Styrofoam Boots- It’s All Nice On Ice, Alright” in which Brock writes about a dream he had in which the method that the mafia killed people was by making them walk across water with styrofoam boots on their feet. Brock displays this cleverly with the opening lines of “Well all’s not well but I’m told that it’ll all be quite nice/You’ll be drowned in boots like mafia but your feet’ll still float like Christ/Well I’ll be damned/They were right/I’m drowning upside down/My feet afloat like Christ!”. Brock’s wit sets the stage for a song that places an atheist into a still flawed version of heaven where he and all the other atheists get put to work for because they didn’t believe in God. At this point Brock meets a man up there, presumably either God or the person they chose to represent the ideal, and this man admits to him that “No one’s really running this whole thing/He had a theory too/He said that God takes care of himself, God takes care of himself and you of you”. Brock sets all of this up for the ultimate metaphor of the song, to compare the situation of drowning in a river and being amazed at how your feet float like Christ’s to living in a world without an active god but choosing to pray to one because you think you’ll be rewarded. Like many other Modest Mouse songs, it’s beautifully depressing.
Another great example of the songwriting expertise on this album is in the references Brock goes to in his lyrics, like in “Heart Cooks Brain”, a track about the relationship between the two essential body parts. Brock sings “In this place that I call home/My brain’s the cliff and my heart’s the bitter buffalo” to describe a native american sacrificial tradition where they would force buffalo to the top of the cliff and block them from getting back down, forcing them to willfully commit suicide to appease the gods. It’s another lyric about pointless action and lack of choice, but cleverly put to fit into the song. The last thing I’ll say about the lyrics is from”Cowboy Dan” which has it’s own religious message of “Goes to the desert/Fires his rifle in the sky and says/God if I have to die you will have to die”. That lyric’s amazing, but I’m more interested in the philosophical message during the song’s slow section. It starts as a song describing an angry western cowboy who has to face the west being destroyed because unwanted urbanization is taking place, but it breaks off into a sad, slow, and simple section which ends with Brock singing the lyrics of the beaten, “Every time you think you’re walking, you’re just moving the ground/Every time you think you’re talking, you’re just moving your mouth/Every time you think you’re looking, you’re just..looking down”. The hopeless side of the cowboy who shot his rifle at the sky to try and kill God, it’s a chilling thing to listen to.
The transition that takes place on “Cowboy Dan” is a terrific one that highlights the band’s range, but there’s also a lot of great differences between whole songs present. Compare the extremely danceable opening of “Lounge (Closing Time)” which begins with “She was going with a cinematographer/Everyone knew he was really a pornographer” to the incredible sincerity of Trailer Trash that opens with “Eating snowflakes with plastic forks/and on a paper plate, of course/You..think..of everything”. I often cite the album opener “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” to be the best Modest Mouse song because it captures so many different versions of the band beautifully in a seven minute long track with incredibly ambitious messages.
I don’t want people to think you’ve got to be anti-religion or anti-urbanization to love the album, it contains a ton of independently relatable lines like the “Out of Gas” stanza “I’m trying to/drink away the part of the day/that I can not sleep away” or the “Bankrupt on Selling” stanza “And it took a long time but I came clean with myself/I’d come clean out of love with my lover/I still love her/Loved her more when she used to be sober and I was kinder”. Also Brock comes up with some funny ones from time to time like how “Out Of Gas” describes a drunken escapade by saying “Opinions were like kittens/I was given em away”. The band members are skilled players as evidenced by the drums which “Trucker’s Atlas” was built around and the jams that occur in numerous songs like the ends of “Doin’ the Cockroach” and “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine”. The end point is that this is a tremendously great album, my favorite one by my favorite band if you can’t tell, and there are many qualities you can find on it to appreciate and a lot of songs on it that I would call classic.
Track Picks: Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine; Styrofoam Boots-It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright; Bankrupt on Selling, Trailer Trash
I’ll be taking a bit of a break with these Essential Albums posts for about the next 2 months as I’m going to work at a sleep-away camp with limited internet access, I plan on bringing the topic back once I get steady access to a computer again though. Keep listening to CDB in the meantime! -Kyle