modest mouse

Between the Grooves of Modest Mouse’s ‘The Lonesome Crowded West’

Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock is a blue-collar poet in the best American tradition, and The Lonesome Crowded West is his opus. Our track-by-track analysis of the classic indie rock album shows its brilliance.

The Lonesome Crowded West
Modest Mouse
Up Records
18 November 1997

“Heart Cooks Brain”

“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 / Its 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.

“Convenient Parking”

“Convenient Parking” (and its later sister song, “Trucker’s Atlas”) reveals The Lonesome Crowded West for what it is at its core: a driving album. The track’s repetitive lyrics, its constantly coiling tension, and its fixation on car culture place you behind the wheel on a long drive whether you’d like to be there or not. The song insistently threatens to explode into a caterwaul of unabashed rock, but it never does. It’s a sly play on Modest Mouse’s part, and it displays the attention to theme and cohesion they bring to every track on this record.

“Soon the chain reaction started in the parking lot”, Brock sings in an almost conversational tone, “Waiting to bleed onto the big streets / And bleed out onto the highways / And off to other cities / Built to store and sell these rocks / Well, weren’t you feeling real dirty sitting in your car, with nothing / Waiting to bleed onto the big streets…” And so goes the circular pattern of the verse, the type of lyrical looping that Brock often uses to great success. Fitting his lyrics into a groove, one that spins and spins on repeat is just the right move when writing about the feeling of stagnation with which “Convenient Parking” concerns itself. Few lyricists pay such literary attention to how form reflects the content, and Brock—for all his trucker sentiments—proves himself here to be a writer of real intellectualized merit.

The chorus, a simple, screamed declaration of “Con-ven-ient / Park-ing / Is way back, way back!”, has Brock dragging the syllables of each word out to their illogical extreme, before shifting quickly back into the locked circle of the verse. These bursts of release last a mere twenty seconds or so, lest the track loses its central focus on the burning desire for such release to last. Driving has always been a fixation of Brock’s, from the title of his band’s debut, This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, to later lyrical investigations on the idea in “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” and “The World at Large”.

It’s the prototypical American theme, something the sprawling borders of our country allow and encourage in a way that bands in the United Kingdom can never really investigate on their home-grown records. In Brock’s vision, crisscrossing the nation’s highways seems irresistible in its beckoning promise of temporary relief and ultimate flight, but always unsatisfying and ultimately lonely. “Convenient Parking”, when it builds to the precipice of a guitar freakout and then ceases suddenly and without warning, suggests the futility of America’s open road promises. It’s an idea from which Brock will never completely shake himself free, and we get the sinking feeling that it’s true of ourselves, too.

“Lounge (Closing Time)”

“She was going with a cinematographer / Everyone knew that he was really a pornographer!” yelps Isaac Brock at the beginning of “Lounge (Closing Time)”. He’s always had an ear for verbal rhythms—ten years later, Johnny Marr would talk about the recording process for We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and how Brock would belt out freestyle lyrics over the two men’s guitar sessions to astonishing effects. This natural talent for flow and rhythmical pyrotechnics shows itself in his musicianship as well, as “Lounge (Closing Time)” bounces along on the disco guitar stylings that Brock often uses to inject into his compositions a hip-shaking impulse that takes their visceral results to the next level. “I’ve got a girlfriend out / Of the city / I know / I like her, I think / She is pretty” he sings later, in flawless lockstep with his stuttering riff.

“Lounge (Closing Time)” can be seen as something of a sister song to a track on the band’s previous LP, This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, titled—simply—“Lounge”. Both employ those dance-inflected rhythms and jittery tension to tell tales of vaguely unsettling nighttime liaisons between Brock’s narrator and a woman, their rendezvous filtered through a general lens of drunken haziness and disturbed consciences. Both, too, begin hyperactively before slowing into extended down-tempo outros, the musical equivalent to the crash that comes after the drugs start to wear off. “They all went down and did the porcupine / And everybody was feeling high”, Brock sings with manic energy, before the line about his out-of-town girlfriend, the revelation of which brings the change in the song’s mood.

The instrumental jam in the song’s mid-section represents a climax of sorts (pun intended) a burst of release before the regretful coda sets in for the remaining two-and-a-half minutes. The only lyrics, aside from the refrain of “it’s closing time” come when Brock quotes his own “Heart Cooks Brain”: “I’m on my way to God don’t know / My brain’s the burger and my heart’s the charcoal”. It’s an expression of the dissipation that often comes after sexual release, the strange loneliness that’s quick to set in after such focused intimacy. Once again, Brock hits right at the center of our ambivalent experience. He doesn’t accept black-and-white expressions. Rather, he sets himself up as a writer of the adult world and all the dark complexity therein. Rock music has a reputation for fetishizing the adolescent, but Modest Mouse doesn’t seem particularly interested.