"Heart Cooks Brain" gives us one of the most subtly heart-wrenching and realistic depictions of the working of depression ever committed to tape.
“Heart Cooks Brain,” the second track on Modest Mouse’s The Lonesome Crowded West, reveals the band’s rhythmic genius, the strength of many of its finest compositions. Drummer Jeremiah Green has always been an integral component of the band’s success (which is why it was so distressing to many fans to see him momentarily depart for personal reasons circa the 2004 album Good News for People Who Love Bad News). Here, Green lays down a stuttering, hip-hop influenced breakbeat backbone for frontman Isaac Brock’s spiraling guitar work and cyclical lyrics. Yes, that’s even a bit of turntable scratching you hear in the distant reaches of the mix. That subtle bit of atmospherics—combined with Green’s head-nodding beat—hints at the musical eclecticism that marks the Modest Mouse catalog.
Still, slight genre-blurring aside, “Heart Cooks Brain” finds its place cemented squarely in the center of Modest Mouse’s songbook. A Brock riff that scales up and down the neck: check. Imagistic lyrics about despair and loneliness: check. A tight rhythm section enviable to any other band playing music: check. The song opens with—as any superfan would hope for—some harmonics, with Brock yelling a few feet away from his microphone, “A slow walk / It’s landmines”. Other than that moment of increased volume, Brock and his band keep things toned down here. It works: “Heart Cooks Brain” is about yearning, absence, and the dullness of depression, and the band’s right to play it close to the chest.
Brock’s high-necked riff repeats on an endless loop, with enough variations and subtle changes to keep things interesting. Brock also dubs in a palm-muted rhythm guitar, which complements Eric Judy’s relaxed octaves on the bass in a way that proves entirely enveloping. Musically, the track’s repetition brings the listener into a meditative, slightly stoned space, perfect for contemplating Brock’s just-strange-enough lyrical themes.
“I’m on my way to God don’t know”, he sings in a near falsetto, “My brain’s the burger and my heart’s the coal”. It’s the kind of metaphor that sounds half-baked and almost laughable on first listen, but which gains strength upon reflection. Brock’s songwriting voice is, after all, that of the truck stop poet. In that way, it’s a perfectly consistent and resonant image. It’s exactly the way such a person—be it Brock or a hyperbolic persona he’s creating for himself—would see things. He further explains: “I’m trying to get my head clear / I push things out through my mouth / I get refilled through my ears”. Has there ever been such a crystalline expression of the constant cycle of anxiety?
“I’m on my way to God don’t know or don’t care”, he continues, “My brain’s the weak heart and my heart’s the long stairs”. Again, Brock’s hitting the right notes. You can try to rationalize your way out of depression and despair, but your heart—the visceral feeling that’s driven you there, in the first place—is the real enemy. “Inland from Vancouver shores / The ravens and the seagulls push each other in and outward / Inward and outward”, he sings, letting the image of cyclical futility speak for itself. “In this place that I call home / My brain’s the cliff and my heart’s the bitter buffalo”—how many quotable lines can he pack into one four-minute song? “In this life that we call home / The years go fast and the days go so slow”, he concludes. The song stops, and the trance is broken, but Brock’s vision of the deadening day-to-day effects of real despair sticks with us.