A Long Drive: Modest Mouse – “Bankrupt on Selling”

“Bankrupt on Selling” is a rare breed in Modest Mouse’s gruff bestiary: an acoustic ballad. The Lonesome Crowded West previously had the acoustic guitar take the forefront on “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child”, but that track is just as raw and seething as the most plugged-in material on this record. “Bankrupt on Selling”, on the other hand, takes things into definitively different territory. Isaac Brock has written a few of these in his tenure—“Lives” from The Moon & Antarctica(2000) and the much-maligned “Blame It on the Tetons” from Good News for People Who Love Bad News(2004) come to mind. But where that Good News track teeters dangerously on the edge of tedium, “Bankrupt on Selling” manages its melancholy with an expert hand, making it one of the most moving songs on an album full of full-steam heartwrenchers.

Rarely one to use minor chords to carry the weight of his most lacerating lyrics, Brock indulges on “Bankrupt on Selling”. The song’s basic four-chord progression does use the minor key in the way typical of perpetually lachrymose singer-songwriters, but the resonance of the track rests in the other elements of its composition. Original guitarist Dann Gallucci provides an airy, subtle accompaniment to Brock’s foundation, his clean electric picking through the melody and supplementing it without overtaking the mix. In fact, Brock shoulders the whole brunt of the performance, without Eric Judy’s rhythmic counterpoints or Jeremiah Green’s busy drumming to provide support. He does so with grace, a word not often associated with Modest Mouse’s squall.

If “Bankrupt on Selling” is a political song, it’s one that filters the political through the personal. Yes, Brock’s taking issue with a buy-and-sell culture that equates the market with God (neither of which gives Brock much faith)—“And all of the angels / They’d sell off your soul / For a set of new wings / And anything gold”, he sings. The apostles plot to sell out Jesus Christ for some stylish new sandals, like “the businessers / In unlimited hell / Where they buy and they sell / And they sell all their trash to each other” even though it brings them no joy or anything resembling fulfillment. It can be a tough sell for a rock star to lecture his audience about economics, but then Brock hadn’t yet found success when he wrote that song. More to the point, his real target—as ever—is himself.

“Well, I’ll go to college / And I’ll learn some big words”, he sings in the final verse, “And I’ll talk real loud / Goddamn right I’ll be heard / You’ll remember the guy who said all those big words he must’ve learned in college”. The way those final lines break free completely from the meter of the song, the way they spill out past that formal structure, mirrors beautifully Brock’s self-deprecation about his education. He’s choosing to be a sloppy poet. No, he didn’t go to college (and he dropped out of high school), and he’s aware that plenty of people would consider him a loser, a social leech, trailer trash. At this point, he doesn’t seem entirely convinced otherwise, himself. Those “businessers” talk right, and they’re part of a world—appealing or not—shut off to him and his station completely.

That isolation permeates the song. In the end, Brock’s alone again: “It took a long time / ‘Til I came clean with myself / I come clean out of love with my lover / Loved her more / When she used to be sober, and I was kinder”. He leaves the final note of resentment not for the religious hypocrites or the corporate suits or even his ex-lover, but for himself. Brock’s candor, his willingness to find fault in himself and not just his surroundings, more than saves “Bankrupt on Selling” from sounding ham-fisted. It elevates the song to its proper place as one of Modest Mouse’s strongest accomplishments, all the more memorable for moving the band out of its musical comfort zone.