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A Long Drive: Modest Mouse - “Trailer Trash”

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Monday, Jan 10, 2011
If The Lonesome Crowded West’s default mode is mouth-foaming anger, “Trailer Trash” is the wounded heart at the center of the album.

If The Lonesome Crowded West’s default mode is mouth-foaming anger, “Trailer Trash” is the wounded heart at the center of the album. Its laconic despair goes a long way toward expressing the other side of Isaac Brock and Modest Mouse’s vitriol, the place of real, self-lacerating hurt where all that rage actually comes from. Here, for the first and perhaps only time on the record, Brock seems uncomfortable—or at least dejected—in his mantle of the blue-collar prophet. If the song, like so many others, focuses on the story of a failed relationship, it does so in order to bring out the vivid particulars of Brock’s narrative style and characterization. The sense of poverty—the emotional poverty, yes, but also the actual, abject poverty—Brock conveys is just as integral to the song’s impact and vision as the lovelorn imagery he creates. True to Modest Mouse form, both poverties are cycles, seemingly impossible to escape.


Both Brock and Eric Judy spend the majority of the song with their instruments locked in a single chord progression, Brock alternating between scratchy palm-muting and well-placed bursts of power chords and Judy laying down the song’s primary melody in a head-bobbing bassline. That repetition, combined with Jeremiah Green’s tom-heavy beat sitting front-and-center in the mix, gives the track an almost trance-like focus similar to that seen in its emotional counterpart, “Heart Cooks Brain”. The verses’ locked-solid foundation, by virtue of their steady consistency, also points the listener’s attention toward Brock’s lyrics. It’s easy to quickly internalize such a rhythmic piece of music, so our ears are free to actively pick out the details in Brock’s narrative while the rest of our body nods along in reflexive step to the beat.
  
“Eating snowflakes with plastic forks / And the paper plate—of course / You think of everything”, Brock begins, his voice understated and terse, simply mumbling the last few syllables. The image combines his trademark surrealism (here, the strange idea of eating snowflakes as a meal provides a sense of fragility) with a perfectly placed bit of realism—the paper plate suggests immediately the cheapness of the song’s emotional and physical atmosphere. “A short love with a long divorce / And a couple of kids—of course / They don’t mean anything”, he continues, all that parallelism, short-versus-long and everything-versus-anything, more evidence of his poetic economy. The next lines shade the picture with a darker note: “Live in trailers with no class / Goddamn, I hope I can pass / High school—means nothing”. This narrator, and the lover he both misses and can’t stand, is crushingly young to be dealing with these patently adult problems. The divorce in question is likely that of the narrator’s parents, and we understand implicitly that their situation parallels (there it is, again) that of their son’s with his lover. When he sings at the end of the verse, “Goddamn, I am such a jerk / I can’t do anything”, we don’t hear it as the self-centered melodrama of a normal teenager. Rather, Brock taps into the lives of the poor, rural people with whom he identifies and about whom he writes, often lives with few opportunities and plenty of stifled promise. It’s hard not to share his narrator’s belief that he’s doomed from the start.


In the chorus, dialed-down and muted with harmonics and light snare hits, Brock’s speaker talks to his absent lover in that high school language: “And I know that I miss you / And I’m sorry if I dissed you”. It’s plain speech, not high poetry, and effective because of that. This kid, with so many odds stacked against him, just blames himself. Brock’s ability to let us see the greater picture, the broader forces at work here, without letting his narrator do so, makes the song’s despair hit us all that much harder. The second half of “Trailer Trash” sees Brock’s guitar finally breaking out of its groove, as he bends notes until they threaten to break and lets his harmonics squeal and echo away. It’s a fitting end to a song of quiet desperation, cathartic but not at all comforting.


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