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!”
Doin’ the cockroach—is Brock trying to start his own Dramamine-tinged dance craze? In part, yes. Once he sings that line, he punches his guitar into disco mode, while Eric Judy and Jeremiah Green do their part in laying down a genuinely danceable groove, albeit one sinister and laced with seasick dread. “All right, not bad”, says Brock, commenting on our progression through his steps. Doin’ the cockroach, too, means sifting through rotting garbage like Brock’s fellow traveler, living in filth—physically, morally, any way we can find—but brutally, almost pathologically, resilient.
That idea of resilience, of bleak imperiousness in the face of time, picks up as the song’s tempo and volume do the same. “One year, twenty years, fifty years / Down the road in your life / You’ll look in the mirror and say / ‘My parents are still alive’”, Brock sings. By now, he and his band have stopped restraining their violence, and the song’s lurching forward with an unstoppable momentum. Brock’s suggesting that we don’t have much of a chance in the way of avoiding our parents’ mistakes, inheriting their flaws. He’s a man obsessed with cycles (see: “Interstate 8”) and not convinced at all of our power to avoid getting caught in them. They will come, as sure as we will be there to fall into them. As he puts it in the song’s final words: “Oh, my mind is all made up / So I’ll have to sleep in it”. “Doin’ the Cockroach” gives his guitar the final say, as Brock finishes the track in a raw, deconstructed solo, all bent harmonics and pick scratches and palm-muted noise. It’s a thoroughly exhilarating moment, and serves to at least vent the frustration that he’s so expertly built into the song, even if he won’t break free from gravity entirely.