A Long Drive: Modest Mouse - “Styrofoam Boots / It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”
The Lonesome Crowded West ends on a note of comfortable abandon, with Isaac Brock momentarily shrugging off his existential questions for a well-deserved drink.
“Styrofoam Boots / It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright” begins with some fleet-fingered acoustic work by Isaac Brock, his voice slightly distorted, as if he downsized his band to a single-man shower stall recording studio. He’s back to mulling his old devils, those questions of God and man and who’s going to come out on top, in the end. This time, though, Brock’s tone sounds quietly unperturbed as he pours over those concerns—lighthearted ones, you know, like whether or not God exists and, if he does, if he actually has our best interests at heart. “Well, all’s not well, but I’m told it’ll all be quite nice”, he sings as if to himself, “You’ll be drowned in boots like mafia, but your feet’ll still float like Christ”. Think about that image: Brock’s got that walk-on-water routine covered, just in the wrong direction. If that’s not a frame-it-and-put-it-in-the-Met picture of human foibles, I don’t know what could be.
See, Brock’s not out-and-out denying the presence of a higher power. “I’m in heaven trying to figure out which stack”, he continues, “They’re gonna stuff us atheists into, when Peter and his monkey laugh / And I laugh with them--not sure what at / They point and say, ‘We’ll keep you in the back’”. That’s not an antagonistic relationship. God’s doorman lets him in, even though Brock doesn’t even believe that God owns the place. Sure, he’ll be in the backroom, “polishing halos, baking manna and gas”, but he’s still up there. It’s notable, too, that it’s not Brock but a barroom stranger, “looking a bit like everyone I ever seen”, who comes off as spiteful, saying, “Anytime anyone gets on their knees to pray, well, it makes my tailbone ring”. The stranger believes that “God takes care of himself / And you of you”. That Brock puts these words in the mouth of someone else, the type so slick that he “moves just like Crisco disco” and polished enough to “breathe one-hundred percent Listerine”—that’s telling. The better part of Brock’s mind might agree, but there’s another part that just can’t go along with it. That’s the part of him that thinks St. Peter’s probably not such a bad guy, after all. His doubt, his unwillingness to completely cede a reluctant acknowledgment of the possibilities of faith, that’s what keeps him writing about God and existential crises through all of his albums. If he knew for sure, it wouldn’t interest him anymore.
That’s where the upbeat tone of this song comes from, too. Sometimes, Brock seems to be saying, it’s fine not to know. The ambiguity and ambivalence drives him crazy on plenty of other tracks, but here it seems to just make sense for seven minutes. The rest of Modest Mouse crashes into life about three minutes in, after Brock’s finished his acoustic almost-apologia, and their easy groove joins him in the refrain: “It’s all nice / It’s all nice / It’s all nice on ice / All right”. In other words, when you can’t rack your brain about The Meaning of It All anymore (like we just did through the whole of The Lonesome Crowded West), just sit back and have a drink.
And there we have it. In case you missed the rest of the record, take another spin:
7. ”Cowboy Dan”
9. ”Out of Gas”
11. ”Shit Luck”
12. ”Truckers Atlas”