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A Long Drive: Modest Mouse - "Polar Opposites"

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Monday, Feb 14, 2011
On "Polar Opposites", Isaac Brock and Modest Mouse turn frustration into energy, anthemizing listlessness in a way that only the best of rock ’n roll music can do.

Isaac Brock doesn’t mope. His songs have their share of navel gazing, of minor chords and heart wringing. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a track where Brock sounds indulgent, caught up in the personal mythologizing—the romanticizing of your own private pains—that comes so often with depression. The Lonesome Crowded West is full of songs about being stuck or stalled out. “Polar Opposites” is another one of them. However, like “Heart Cooks Brain” or “Trailer Trash” or the other more overtly melancholy tracks on the album, “Polar Opposites” doesn’t shuffle along, mumbling to itself in a sad-sack reverie. Instead, Brock and Modest Mouse turn frustration into energy, anthemizing listlessness in a way that only the best of rock n’ roll music can do.

As mentioned before in these pages, “Polar Opposites” sees Modest Mouse leaning heavily on its pop sensibilities. On an album as raw and aggressive as The Lonesome Crowded West, this type of songwriting could seem out of place, but the band knows so well how to write a hook, how to use melody and major chords to command attention, that “Polar Opposites” represents just another peak in the album’s trajectory. It’s the track you’d lift from the album and play for your friend who needs to be eased into a record as disarmingly dense as this one. It goes down easy.
“Polar Opposites” opens with the band in head-nodding, foot-tapping mode. Jeremiah Green’s kick drum locks up with Eric Judy’s restless bass groove, while Brock palm-mutes his power chords and lets his plaintive vocals carry the melody. “Polar opposites don’t push away”, he sings, “It’s the same / On the weekends as the rest of the days / And I know I should go / But I will probably stay / And that’s all you can do about some things”. It’s an unusually reserved lyric for a guy who, one track ago, was screaming his lungs out about speeding across the country to get away from anything and everything that counted him as a familiar face. Lest we think he’s finally settling into accepting the push-pull of this album’s world, Brock and the band hit things into overdrive for the chorus.

Brock lets those chords ring out in full volume, singing as loudly as his voice will let him without breaking: “I’m trying / I’m trying to / Drink away the part of the day / That I cannot sleep away”. The way he and the band frame it musically, the sentiment isn’t all defeatist. Rather, it’s a rallying call, a way of Brock’s asserting himself—even if that self-assertion comes in the form of blanking out the days instead of letting them blank him out.

The song builds to an instrumental climax, Green keeping his toms busy while Judy settles into that bassline. Brock uses his bandmates’ steadiness as a means for his guitar to explore the track’s melody, chewing it up and spitting it out in bursts of feedback squall and stop-start, beefed-up power chords. It’s triumphalism in the name of self-pity—a sentiment that’s been given a bad name by innumerable lesser bands, but try not putting your fist in the air when that chorus hits.

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