Modest Mouse, more than perhaps any other band, embodies the strange place indie rock has come to occupy in the 21st century. It is, of course, no longer an “indie” band by definition—the group is signed to a major label and has seen an enormous amount of crossover success. The group’s 2004 song “Float On” went from quirky single to near ubiquity in a matter of months, while We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (2007) debuted at a surreal number one on the Billboard charts. Though a guest spot on The OC and allowances for its songs to be used on American Idol and, why not, Kidz Bop earned the band plenty of ire from indie purists, Isaac Brock and company had long solidified their place in the contemporary canon before they actually started selling records. The Moon & Antarctica (2000) blew critics’ minds wide open with its hallucinatory edge and indelible hooks, and the album handily topped many of those recent Best of the Decade lists. To many fans and critics alike, The Moon & Antarctica represents Modest Mouse at its best, giving us the band’s purest synthesis of ambitious artistic sentiment and irresistible pop songcraft. That may be true, but the band laid the groundwork for that stratospheric success in the equally seminal 1997 album The Lonesome Crowded West. If Moon sees Isaac Brock lifting himself above the Earth into full-on acid prophet mode, The Lonesome Crowded West has him firmly rooted on solid ground, an American visionary of singular strength.
If anyone claims Issaquah, Washington, as a place unlikely to give a rock band its start, do your part and correct them. Issaquah, hailed by Brock as the type of deadly boring suburban wasteland that America so excels in creating, typifies the kind of setting that could breed the restless ingenuity he and his band have managed for nearly two decades now. Brock writes songs about sprawl and distance, both emotional and physical, and the scenes in New York or Los Angeles would’ve been too urbane, too cosmopolitan, to birth the group. Modest Mouse is the anti-Brooklyn band. Brock’s country-fried roots, his wholesale incorporation of banjo-and-brass Americana, his bizarrely Southern accent: these are not borrowed Bushwick affectations, but the product of his trailer trash (to borrow his term) childhood in Issaquah. He is a blue-collar poet in the best American tradition, and The Lonesome Crowded West is his opus.
It’s all here in the opener “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine”. Jeremiah Green’s thunderous drumming, Eric Judy’s expert counterpoint bass work, Brock’s intuitively inventive guitar riffing, his voice’s ability to go from a desperate lisping howl to a startlingly understated tenor in a single breath—“Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” brings them all front and center, right away. “From the top of the ocean / To the bottom of the sky / Goddamn, well, I get claustrophobic / I can, you know that I can”, yells Brock, cramming as many syllables as he can into each second. He’s introducing the album’s titular conundrum, the seemingly conflicting feelings of intense loneliness and paranoid claustrophobia that life in the sprawl can bring. Over an impossibly thorny riff and his band’s stop-start lurching, he screams out a series of imagistic portrayals of seething frustration. “You’ll burn me in effigy / And I’ll burn you in effigy”, he sings, “A rattlesnake up and over in Montana / He bit the leg of the old sheriff / Ha!—that boy fell down on his hairlip!” The lyrics are plainly non-narrative, but together with the music they create a patchwork of resentment so intense as to beg not for white-knuckled tension but bloody-knuckled release. “I feel dizzier by the mile”, he admits, and we do, too.
If this were the only emotion cued by the song, we’d still have to laud the band for such a pure expression. However, “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” is the type of multi-suite epic in which Brock specialized in his early career, and soon he and his bandmates slow the tempo. Now Brock sings—really sings, in a voice seldom appreciated for its fragile beauty—in a more reserved manner, one that mirrors the shift in tone the song undertakes. Here, we move from boiling anger to self-reflective guilt, an emotional trajectory familiar to anyone who’s experienced such feelings—which is to say, to all of us. Brock nails that depressive transition, singing, “Oh, if you could compact your conscience / Oh, and you might / Oh, if you could bottle and sell it… / Save it for another time / You know you might have to use it”. The real target of his frustration comes home: he’s angry with himself, and he can’t convince himself or his conscience that any other individual really deserves the blame or the loathing at hand.
Once Brock has opened himself up to this feeling, the song dives headfirst into a palpable ache. He uses his beloved 3/4 time signature and harmonics to coax that feeling out of his guitar, while singing, “And the television’s on / Go to the grocery store / Buy some new friends / And find out the beginning / The end, and the / Best of it”. Crucially, he doesn’t try to oversell these emotions with his voice, keeping his tone understated and plaintive. “Well, do you need a lot of what you got to survive?” he asks. These lines, the closest thing the song has to a chorus, give such a vivid picture of American isolation that one has to wonder how Brock, only 22 at this point, could have managed such prescience. The clinical glare of the television and the supermarket’s fluorescent lights mixed with the surreal idea of buying new friends, the effect of the commodifying influence of America’s consumer culture—it would be a wonder of subtly wrought poetry for a man twice his age.
He continues his indictment of buy-and-sell ethics, introducing “The man with teeth like God’s shoeshine / He sparkles, shimmers, shines”, before proffering the idea, “Let’s all have another Orange Julius / Thick syrup, standing in lines”. Brock’s ability to personify the isolation and emptiness of stripmall culture in such pointed images lends him the authority possessed by the greatest of disaffected songwriters. “The malls are the soon-to-be ghost towns”, he exhales, “Well, so long / Farewell / Goodbye”. And then the song rebuilds its pace expertly, building again to the furor of its introductory salvo. His self-loathing and impotent frustration in his surroundings exorcised for the moment, Brock’s angry again. He screams to an unnamed audience, most likely a faceless vision of the neighbors with whom he can never connect: “Or you could add it up and / Give a shit / I’m on the corner of this and this and this and this!” The song fades again into its chorus, and by the time Brock tells his listeners that “The telephone goes off / pick the receiver up / Try to meet ends / And find out the beginning / The end, and the / Best of it…” we’re ready for it to end on that note of despair. Instead, he and the band lead us into a final two minutes of screaming, wrenched guitars, and pummeled drums, as if they could beat themselves and their instruments into some kind of self-flagellating penance, a way to earn them an escape. It’s a seven-minute trip of singular revelation, and it introduces Modest Mouse as a force impossible to ignore.