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.
“Float On” and uplift have their places, too, let’s not be mistaken. It’s just difficult to see where they would fit into “Cowboy Dan’s” world. “Can’t do it, not even if sober”, shouts Brock in the chorus, “Can’t get that engine turned over”. He’s giving us more stagnation, told again through the lens of America’s car culture. There’s no shortage of space in the desert and plateaus west of the Rockies, but Dan couldn’t fill it up—couldn’t stake his claim or make a permanent, meaningful mark and find actualization through that creation—even with all of his focus borne razor-sharp to the task. Brock introduces us to Dan in the midst of his drunken defeat, a broken and bitter man who “wants out desperately” enough to throw himself in attack toward God rather than completely surrender to death and complacence. It’s heavy stuff for a rock song, but Brock and his band sell it.
Jeremiah Green leans on his tambourine with each thump of his kick drum, a nod to cowboy atmosphere, while Brock expertly raises the tension of the song by pumping up his quickly-picked initial guitar melody with power chords that turn the same notes into towering versions of their previous selves. True to the way dynamics often work on The Lonesome Crowded West, though, the band takes things back down for a while right when they seem ready to burst. The first chorus segues into a surprising and beautifully mournful bridge, with Brock singing softly, “Standing in the tall grass, thinking nothing / You know we need oxygen to breathe, oxygen to breathe”. It’s an image of life reduced to its bare reflexes, simply breathing in and out without any greater aspirations or efforts. The moment comes when we feel we know Brock’s character, Dan, as a man of reckless but admirable rebellion in the face of the forces that threaten to wear him down. Here, we see him suddenly revealed as someone with real doubt, someone who hits dreadful lows and touches the edges of palpable, bottomless despair. “Every time you think you’re walking”, Brock continues, his voice distant a few feet away from the microphone, “You’re just moving the ground / Every time you think you’re talking / You’re just moving your mouth / Every time you think you’re looking / You’re just looking down . . .” Then, the song shifts suddenly back into the verse, Brock and Dan again riled up and ready to call God to task, however fruitlessly they know it will be. It’s another cycle on an album full of them, and perhaps Modest Mouse’s most potently-realized and emotionally devastating composition.