There seems to be a broad consensus amongst hardcore Modest Mouse fans that the band produced their finest work in the early stages of their career. The claim is that the scruffier and more caustic, late 1990s to early 2000s output of the Washington band created more charismatic music than their cleaner, more anthemic albums of the last two decades. It’s a persistent and stubborn argument, one that tends to surround any group that have been in existence for as long as Modest Mouse.
While that long-gone era produced some undeniable brilliance, Modest Mouse’s output was also considerably rougher around the edges and less emotionally open. When they plumbed depths – as on, for example, “Dramamine” or “Edit the Sad Parts” – the tone was not so much reflective or melancholic, but rather just murky and downbeat. Those are good songs, yet it took band leader Isaac Brock a few albums to figure out how to properly utilize nuance and flair to express the rich depths of emotion running through his veins.
This change in Modest Mouse’s tone was surely also brought about by the changes to Brock’s lifestyle. He’s been open about his struggles with addiction – best explained in 2003’s “The Good Times Are Killing Me” – and over the years has dealt with legal issues, self-harm, and the accidental death of his adopted brother. He’s been through a lot, which makes the argument that he produced his best work during those dark days a slightly hollow, sour-tasting one.
The Golden Casket finds Brock in a clearer and more optimistic headspace than ever before. It’s a buoyant, lively album, one crafted by a musician evidently content with life and his place in the world. Titles like “We’re Lucky” and “The Sun Hasn’t Left” epitomize this gracious and calm perspective, as well as Brock’s tranquil, almost meditative demeanor. He’s not strictly an optimist, but he’s aware of life’s complexities (see the “making plans in the sand as the tides roll in” line from “Wooden Soldiers”). He is at peace within a turbulent universe (check out “We Are Between’s” “somewhere between dust and the stars” mantra).
Brock has always loved making these sorts of grand statements. From “3rd Planet” to “People As Places As People”, they can be found littered across the highlights of Modest Mouse’s career. His witty existentialist poetry has mostly focused on the cosmos, the natural world, and oddball characters, all still present on The Golden Casket. However, certain tracks also see him taking a close look at his own life – specifically the achingly sweet “Lace Your Shoes”. A sincere, heartfelt imagining of his children’s futures, it makes full use of Brock’s vibrant and eclectic imagery in service of a gentle and poignant ballad. Where he often uses the pronoun “we” in his lyrics, Brock makes deliberate and frequent use of “I” – which is highly telling.
Other highlights include the anthemic lead single “We Are Between”, the jittery “Never Fuck a Spider on the Fly”, and the lush, expansive closer “Back to the Middle”. A deeply melancholy, vibrantly alive track, “Back to the Middle’s” lyrics about “cabins”, “the heavens”, and “knitting you a sweater” are quintessential Isaac Brock, brilliantly conveying all of his obsessions in one heartfelt and engrossing track. Flicking between a stunning arpeggio riff and maximalist drums and guitars, you never want “Back to the Middle” to end.
The Golden Casket is almost a complete package. Its 12 songs are remarkably tight and focused for a Modest Mouse album, which again feels reflective of the composed, focused headspace Brock seems to be in. It’s another wonderful, soulful release by one of the world’s most singular rock bands and wholly obliterates the retrograde notion that musicians require tortured head scapes to create rich, compelling art.