Here it comes, to borrow a phrase. “Doin’ the Cockroach” marks the beginning of a trilogy of sorts on The Lonesome Crowded West. That three-part progression, moving through to “Cowboy Dan” and “Trailer Trash”, remains perhaps the most thrilling movement in Modest Mouse’s extensive career. All three tracks remain fan favorites and live staples—and for good reason. They represent Modest Mouse at its creative peak, or at least the peak of this era in its songwriting. While later releases would move into longer song structures and psychedelic experimentalism (The Moon & Antarctica) and hook-heavy, Americana-laced eclecticism (Good News for People Who Love Bad News), the band who wrote “Doin’ the Cockroach” was still that now increasingly rare beast: an honest-to-God guitar unit of the utmost focused intensity. Isaac Brock and company wanted to play loud, wanted to get you moving, and wanted to communicate full-throated and entirely potent emotive experiences in the process.
“I was in heaven / I was in hell / Believe in neither, but / Fear ‘em, as well”, sings Brock to start, barking those last few words in a way that almost sounds like a command. His guitar screams there, too, four quick power chords matching his staccato rhythm as his instrumental melody welds itself precisely to that of his vocals. As the verse continues, Brock paints a lightly surrealistic scene of long-distance travel, his pet theme on the album. He takes inventory of his fellow riders, alternately moving together on a subway, a Greyhound bus, an Amtrak train, each person more unbearable than the last. “PLEASE SHUT UP” becomes his refrain, yelled hoarsely over those brittle chords. The stop-start, soft-loud dynamics, combined with the unhinged imagery of the lyrics, create a queasy and unsettled atmosphere, as if we were riding with Brock on the trip through uneven, hostile terrain. The last traveler he describes sets up the song’s titular image: “This one’s a crazer / Day-dreaming disaster / The origin of junkfood / Rutting through garbage / Tasty but worthless / Dogs eat their own shit / We’re doin’ the cockroach—yeah!”