Claiming “Cowboy Dan” as your favorite Modest Mouse song marks you as a particular type of fan: someone with too much pent-up aggression to choose “Third Planet”, or more appreciative of pure volume than those who would pick “Dramamine”, or in desperate need of an epic, sprawling fix that “Broke” just can’t provide. If The Moon & Antarctica stands as the Rubicon that divides the band’s devotees into two camps (pre-or-post high production values, more or less), “Cowboy Dan” is the near-consensus pick for the Holy Shit Have You Heard This Yet Shut Up and Listen award in the band’s catalog for fans allied to Modest Mouse’s true indie days. These types of fans (whose ranks include your writer, for what it’s worth) tend to treat Isaac Brock as a reverend, a firebrand preacher of a decidedly singular and manic-depressive gospel. “Cowboy Dan”, if you follow, is Pastor Ike’s strongest sermon. Think Jonathan Edwards in overalls, spewing forth not “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, but “God in the Hands of Some Seriously Angry Sinners”.
As mentioned in this series’ previous entry, “Doin’ the Cockroach” lays the emotional foundation for the track, that song’s final moments of cathartic vitriol giving way perfectly to “Cowboy Dan’s” more sustained rage. “Doin’ the Cockroach” takes its time to boil over, but “Cowboy Dan” scorches right from the start. Brock generally shies away from directly narrative songwriting, but here he gives us a protagonist in the literal sense, a titular character through whom he’s able to color his vision of the American West as a sun-bleached and soul-scarring wasteland. In the opening verse, he sings: “Well, Cowboy Dan’s a major player in the cowboy scene, he / Goes to the reservation, drinks and gets mean, he / Goes to the desert, fires his rifle in the sky, and says / ‘God, if I have to die, you will have to die!’”. This is Blood Meridian in 4/4 meter. This is an American songwriter stabbing blindly at his culture’s open-air failures. “Float On”, this is not.