In what was perhaps the weirdest—and, hands down, most disturbing—moment in late television history, the surviving contestants on American Idol recently performed Modest Mouse’s mega-mainstream hit, “Float On”, in one of those fake, goofy music videos where the aspiring singers all walk down a sun-drenched street and sing in unison. Shortly thereafter, while performing with his band in South Dakota, Modest Mouse’s lead singer, Isaac Brock, beat himself in the head with his microphone, then pulled a pocket knife and began slicing up his chest. Coincidence? You be the judge. I’m guessing that legions of Modest Mouse fans also wanted to harm themselves when learning of this atrocity. How can you go from underground icons (as in, you know, artistic credibility) to American Idol karaoke fodder in one album? Just thinking about it makes me want to throw all my Modest Mouse LPs in a pile and set fire to them with Southern Baptist zeal. I’d even clutch a Bible and shout and laugh maniacally and pretend they did something much worse than succeed in getting more people than is “acceptable” to appreciate their music.
Of course, these two events have nothing to do with one another, other than they both show what happens to a band when it suddenly finds itself a popular purchase at the neighborhood Target. Suddenly, people who want music that matches their living room deco start dropping their name, while long-time fans have to give the standard—and hopelessly irrelevant—retort, “I liked them before… anyone… knew… them…” And, when you’re the lead singer of said band, every move you make is followed and scrutinized, especially when it involves self-mutilation. But what’s a lead singer to do? After all, you spend your entire career trying to hit it big, gathering a steady and religiously-devout following in the process, and then when you do hit it big, you’re anathema? No fair.
Maybe that’s why Brock had a spate of writer’s block when writing Modest Mouse’s latest album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, and turned to Johnny Marr for help. Yes, that Johnny Marr. The one from the Smiths. The one who was the McCartney to Morrissey’s Lennon. The one who wrote the music to “Back to the Old House” at the obscene age of 20, the show-off bastard. It’s a totally logical move for Brock: you hit the big time, you’re worried you’ve lost your cred, you enlist Mr. Cred. Marr has, after all, not only played with the Smiths, but also the Pretenders, Bernard Sumner, and Ringo’s kid (who plays with the Who). Doesn’t get much more cred than that.
So, with the impossibility of their current situation (how can they top “Float On” when they’re not allowed to anyways?), how does Modest Mouse fare on their new album? Actually, they fare a lot like the past. Their last album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, was deceptive in its track listing. The first fourth of the album was very pop-oriented, loaded with catchy and melodic tracks that sounded primed for radio; this, in fact, was where “Float On” was placed. The rest of the album, though, was no attempt at widespread acceptance. Songs like “Dig Your Grave” sounded like Tom Waits outtakes, with Brock squealing and yelping over decidedly theatrical noise. Nothing on the last three-quarters of Good News was ever in danger of being played on the radio, simply because it was too eccentric.
We Were Dead takes this latter route, one more interested in exploring artistic possibilities than chart success. Brock and company don’t so much alter their sound as refine it. The grooves are still thick and bouncy, Brock still yells (sometimes incoherently), and the whole thing sounds like the most focused mess ever assembled. Here, as on past Modest Mouse releases, the charm is in how—quite miraculously—the band is able to tie together a bunch of frayed ends to make something complete. “Spitting Venom” is a perfect example of this musical legerdemain; beginning with one of Brock’s trademark battered, jaunty melodies, it gains steam until becoming an all-out cacophonous orgy of clanging, then slows down again, segues into a horn section, then slowly—as in for three-plus minutes—fades out. Several of the songs, such as “Fly Trapped in a Jar” and “Invisible”, similarly sound like numerous disparate pieces stitched together by Brock’s screaming. Indeed, there’s no clear-cut hit here (the first single, “Dashboard”, should have been a tip-off), but the album is the more intriguing for it. You have to work to appreciate this one, but it’s worth the effort.
As for Marr, his presence is surprisingly subtle, which is probably a good thing. For twenty years now, Smiths fans have been waiting for the Second Coming of Johnny Marr, so the fact that he plays to suit the songs and band here shows his professionalism (or, as it may be, Brock’s overwhelming presence). There’s nothing as inventive as the guitar riff on “How Soon Is Now?” or just plain genius as the intro lick to “This Charming Man”, but there are definitely classic Marr moments. The chorus in “Florida”, for one, is reminiscent of “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, not only because of the frantic fret work, but also because of the impeccable work on the high-hat. Similarly, “We’ve Got Everything” sounds distinctly Marr, developing the harder-edged sound he was flirting with—think of the jagged intro to “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish”— before the Smiths abruptly disbanded. Overall, however, Marr plays to enhance the songs, not to stand on top of them and let the riffs fly.
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, then, is perhaps the smartest move Modest Mouse could have made. While it contains no likely candidates for Top 40 success, it’s a reminder that that was never the goal in the first place. And while it is, at times, a challenging listen, there are enough catchy moments to prompt enough listens for the thing to grow on you. And Johnny Marr back in a relevant band? Nice, man. Most of all, though, nothing here will ever, ever be featured on American Idol. Float on, indeed.