A Long Drive: Modest Mouse - “Truckers Atlas”

If The Lonesome Crowded West is an album born of and fixated upon car culture, “Truckers Atlas” is the engine at the heart of it. Jack Kerouac, take a seat and learn something.

If The Lonesome Crowded West is an album born of and fixated upon car culture, “Truckers Atlas” is the engine at the heart of it. Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock’s ultimate—and ultimately frustrated—vision of gasoline-fueled escapism, the track fires on all cylinders for upwards of ten minutes. Brock’s narrator here speeds back and forth across the country from Alaska to Florida, New York to Arizona, and finds nothing but emptiness and isolation in America’s open road promises. Jack Kerouac, take a seat and learn something.

Musically, “Truckers Atlas” gives us some of Modest Mouse’s most focused performances, each member of the band locking into rhythm as tightly as the Jaws of Life biting into twisted metal. Jeremiah Green lays down perhaps the most inspired beat of his life, a flurry of toms and snare and hi-hat (and that delectably placed chime on the bell of his ride cymbal) that provides the track with enough muscle to make Brock’s odometer abuse sound believable. If we could figure out a way to liquefy that beat and siphon it into our gas tanks, we’d all be set for life. Brock and Eric Judy hit upon riffs at once raw and smoothly danceable, displaying the mastery of syncopation so integral to the band’s sound. The composition is—all right, fine—a well-oiled machine, never faltering for a moment.

“I’m going to Colorado”, shouts Brock at the song’s outset, “to unload my head”. Once again, he’s trying for catharsis via perpetual motion. If you expect it to work this time around, you haven’t been paying attention. “I’m going to New York City / And that’s in New York, friends”, he continues, “I’m going to Arizona / Sex on the rocks, all warm and red / And we bled”. This desire for the all-out expansion of yourself into every corner of the country, the frustration that builds and builds at being stuck in the same place until the adrenaline could seem to carry you to the Rockies and the East River and back again—that’s “Truckers Atlas”. Whether Brock’s working with a narrator who actually does make these drives over and over, or if he’s just in his bedroom plotting that itinerary onto points on the ceiling, that doesn’t matter much. We know what he’s saying, and we feel it with every thud of the kick drum. “I’m going up to Alaska / I’m gonna get off scotch-fucking-free / And we all did”, he yells, and who wouldn’t want to get away, clean and easy?

Of course, it doesn’t work that way. When Brock shifts from pounding chords to reverb-laden picking, he also shifts the song’s tone from aggressive manifesto to a tacit admission that he doesn’t quite believe that everything will work out as he claims. “I don’t feel / And I feel great” he sings more quietly now, “I sold my atlas by the freight stairs / I do lines / And I cross roads / I cross the lines of all the great state roads”. That last line sounds less triumphant than desperate, and we get the sense that whatever he just said to the contrary, he feels way too much. “I’m going up, going over to Montana / You got yourself a trucker’s atlas / You knew you were / All hot—well, maybe you’ll go and blow a gasket”—it’s the perfect metaphor in Brock’s compositional voice, the nervous breakdown as mechanical failure. When he goes on to sing, “You start at the northwest corner / Go down through California / Beeline, you might drive three days / Three nights to the tip of Florida”, he’s not selling it as any real way to live, not to us and not to himself, either.

The band picks up steam again, and Brock screams, “Do you speak the lingo? / No, no! / How far does your road go? / Oh, no, you don’t know!” Then, he’s back to the promises of Colorado, New York, Alaska, and freedom from accountability. It’s the push-pull, the cycle, his m.o. Anger, defeat, resilience, looped on and on. The last six minutes of the track embody that idea, as he and his band play out a musical coda with minimal variations. “Truckers Atlas” becomes, in that, a song for a long drive, the suggestion that we’ll all keep treading pavement until we find a place where we seem to fit, however unrealistic we might sometimes know that to be.

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