Modest Mouse is a group that makes what can be described as angry, blue-collar rock music. Frontman Isaac Brock’s vocal cadence is comparable to the drawl of a full-throated, whiskey-fueled redneck, and his vocal delivery often devolves into him shouting his lyrics into the microphone. But this is not meant as a criticism of Brock – imperfect vocalists are often those whose messages are taken to be the most genuine and heartfelt (Will Sheff of Okkervil River and Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel fame immediately come to mind as other examples). Indeed, Brock’s lyricism is noted for his wordplay, philosophical metaphors, and poignant lamentations of rural lifestyles. Brock’s portrait of drifters, transients, and the disillusioned working class on The Lonesome Crowded West (1997) exemplify his utilization of lyrics to paint an image in the listener’s mind that is then brought to life with an impassioned vocal performance. This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About (1996) evokes similar feelings of loneliness, listlessness, and melancholia. It should be noted though, that the songs of Modest Mouse are not academic expositions on nihilism, but rather the abject observations of someone that has personally lived that intolerable reality.
The Moon & Antarctica, released in the midst of one of the greatest years in rock music history, represents a maturation of earlier efforts, refining their raw grittiness into a polished record that still retains the central premise of Modest Mouse. Immediately, the sonic composition of opening track “3rd Planet” and acoustic ballad “Gravity Rides Everything” stand out from the lo-fi, garage rock aesthetic of Lonesome Crowded West. Clean, full-bodied, and reverberated guitar tones create a more expansive atmosphere, allowing Brock’s words to echo into the distance. Despite this change in setting, Brock’s message remains the same, as evidenced by the opening lines: “Everything that keeps us together is falling apart.” The upbeat and dissonant “Dark Center of the Universe,” “Tiny City Made of Ashes,” and “A Different City” return to more familiar territory, reminiscent of fan favorite “Doin’ The Cockroach.” Positioned at the center of the album is the lengthy folk-punk epic, “The Stars Are Projectors,” which discusses the interplay between faith, religion, and death before accelerating into a whirling cacophony of violins and drums. The album’s tracklist rounds out with an enjoyable sequence of ballads and rockers before ending on closing track “What People Are Made Of,” a sardonic and bitter summary of the human condition – “And the one thing you taught me ’bout human beings was this/ They ain’t made of nothin’ but water and shit/ Alright!”
Sadly, The Moon & Antarctica marks the apotheosis of Modest Mouse. Subsequent works Good News For People Who Love Bad News (2004) and We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank (2007) were respectable, radio-friendly pop-rock records, but lack the hard-hitting, emotive impact of earlier Modest Mouse albums. Perhaps this shift in tone reflects the state of affairs in Isaac Brock’s personal life – if so, that is a good thing.
Modest Mouse – 3rd Planet