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

“Jesus Christ Was an Only Child”

When asked to clarify the “meaning” of “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child”, Isaac Brock once said, “It’s not true. He had a brother” .

The guy doesn’t like interviews, sure. Still, it’s a dumb question. Songwriters, more than artists in any other medium, are forced again and again to expound upon the meaning of their works. Does this line of questioning indicate something about our attitudes toward pop music? Do we, even after all this time, not trust pop music to speak for itself? Are we anxious that, ultimately, pop music is devoid of any real insight or grand artistic sentiment, unless its purveyors can somehow point us—outside of the songs, themselves—toward the light?

Whatever. If it’s anyone’s, it’s our job—not the artists’—to write about what it is that songs, or paintings or films or sculptures or buildings, communicate to us. “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child”, for its part, is one of the more opaque tracks on The Lonesome Crowded West (what to make of those lines about “internet cash”?). The emotional tenor comes through, per usual, strong enough: anger, frustration, a nihilistic twinge of humor. Musically, the song indulges Brock and co.’s taste for Americana.

Modest Mouse had already broken out the banjo and fiddle for earlier songs like “Mechanical Birds/Make Everyone Happy”, and the band will go on to do it with more frequency, tossing in some New Orleans-style brass, on later tracks like “Satin in a Coffin”, “The Devil’s Workday”. and “King Rat”. Here, Brock abuses an acoustic guitar while guest musician Tyler Reilly lays down a suitably country-fried fiddle accompaniment. These stylings never seem mere affectations—Brock’s already established his blue-collar voice with enough authority to warrant the experimentation, and the thin layer of grit that spreads itself over the recording doesn’t hurt, either.

Lyrically, Brock threads together depiction of Jesus Christ as a serene figure in an otherwise blatantly aggressive world: “Well, Jesus Christ was an only child / He went down to the river and he drank and smiled / And his dad was oh-so-mad / Should’ve insured that planet before it crashed”. Brock’s suggesting that Christ couldn’t do his job as a redeemer—God would’ve been better off to take out a life insurance policy on his creation. For a writer famously toxic toward organized religion, it’s interesting that Brock generally avoids typical anti-religious shock value in his lyrics (hello, Metal Section at Your Local Record Store). Instead, he opts for a strangeness in his lyrics that begs for further attention in order to parse out his implications.

Yes, he’s still spitting the words with due venom. He’s sarcastic and biting, and the song ends with the Father swearing that he “Should’ve killed that little fucker / Before he even had”. “Before he even had” gotten the chance to live, one assumes. Brock’s overextending himself here, protesting too much, and losing the subtlety that makes the other lyrics here compelling. Nevertheless, when he finishes the track by screaming, “I know now what I knew then / But I should’ve known then what I know now!” it’s hard not to be struck by the visceral punch of his voice. There are different ways to be forceful, after all.

“Doin’ the Cockroach”

Here it comes, to borrow a phrase. “Doin’ the Cockroach” marks the beginning of a trilogy of sorts on The Lonesome Crowded West. That three-part progression, moving through to “Cowboy Dan” and “Trailer Trash”, remains perhaps the most thrilling movement in Modest Mouse’s extensive career. All three tracks remain fan favorites and live staples — and for good reason. They represent Modest Mouse at its creative peak, or at least the peak of this era in its songwriting. While later releases would move into longer song structures and psychedelic experimentalism (The Moon & Antarctica) and hook-heavy, Americana-laced eclecticism (Good News for People Who Love Bad News), the band who wrote “Doin’ the Cockroach” was still that now increasingly rare beast: an honest-to-God guitar unit of the utmost focused intensity. Isaac Brock and company wanted to play loud, wanted to get you moving, and wanted to communicate full-throated and entirely potent emotive experiences in the process.

“I was in heaven / I was in hell / Believe in neither, but / Fear ‘em, as well”, sings Brock to start, barking those last few words in a way that almost sounds like a command. His guitar screams there, too, four quick power chords matching his staccato rhythm as his instrumental melody welds itself precisely to that of his vocals. As the verse continues, Brock paints a lightly surrealistic scene of long-distance travel, his pet theme on the album. He takes inventory of his fellow riders, alternately moving together on a subway, a Greyhound bus, an Amtrak train, each person more unbearable than the last.

“PLEASE SHUT UP” becomes his refrain, yelled hoarsely over those brittle chords. The stop-start, soft-loud dynamics, combined with the unhinged imagery of the lyrics, create a queasy and unsettled atmosphere as if we were riding with Brock on the trip through uneven, hostile terrain. The last traveler he describes sets up the song’s titular image: “This one’s a crazer / Day-dreaming disaster / The origin of junk food / Rutting through garbage / Tasty but worthless / Dogs eat their own shit / We’re doin’ the cockroach–yeah!”

Doin’ the cockroach–is Brock trying to start his own Dramamine-tinged dance craze? In part, yes. Once he sings that line, he punches his guitar into disco mode, while Eric Judy and Jeremiah Green do their part in laying down a genuinely danceable groove, albeit one sinister and laced with seasick dread. “All right, not bad”, says Brock, commenting on our progression through his steps. Doin’ the cockroach, too, means sifting through rotting garbage like Brock’s fellow traveler, living in filth–physically, morally, any way we can find–but brutally, almost pathologically, resilient.

That idea of resilience, of bleak imperiousness in the face of time, picks up as the song’s tempo and volume do the same. “One year, twenty years, fifty years / Down the road in your life / You’ll look in the mirror and say / ‘My parents are still alive’,” Brock sings. By now, he and his band have stopped restraining their violence, and the song’s lurching forward with unstoppable momentum. Brock’s suggesting that we don’t have much of a chance in the way of avoiding our parents’ mistakes, inheriting their flaws. He’s a man obsessed with cycles (see: “Interstate 8”) and not convinced at all of our power to avoid getting caught in them. They will come, as sure as we will be there to fall into them. As he puts it in the song’s final words: “Oh, my mind is all made up / So I’ll have to sleep in it”. “Doin’ the Cockroach” gives his guitar the final say, as Brock finishes the track in a raw, deconstructed solo, all bent harmonics and pick scratches and palm-muted noise. It’s a thoroughly exhilarating moment and serves to at least vent the frustration that he’s so expertly built into the song, even if he won’t break free from gravity entirely.

“Cowboy Dan”

Claiming “Cowboy Dan” as your favorite Modest Mouse song marks you as a particular type of fan: someone with too much pent-up aggression to choose “Third Planet”, or more appreciative of pure volume than those who would pick “Dramamine”, or in desperate need of an epic, sprawling fix that “Broke” just can’t provide. If The Moon & Antarctica stands as the Rubicon that divides the band’s devotees into two camps (pre-or-post high production values, more or less), “Cowboy Dan” is the near-consensus pick for the Holy Shit Have You Heard This Yet Shut Up and Listen award in the band’s catalog for fans allied to Modest Mouse’s true indie days. These types of fans (whose ranks include your writer, for what it’s worth) tend to treat Isaac Brock as a reverend, a firebrand preacher of a decidedly singular and manic-depressive gospel. “Cowboy Dan”, if you follow, is Pastor Ike’s strongest sermon. Think Jonathan Edwards in overalls, spewing forth not “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, but “God in the Hands of Some Seriously Angry Sinners”.

As mentioned in the write-up on, “Doin’ the Cockroach” lays the emotional foundation for the track, that song’s final moments of cathartic vitriol giving way perfectly to “Cowboy Dan’s” more sustained rage. “Doin’ the Cockroach” takes its time to boil over, but “Cowboy Dan” scorches right from the start. Brock generally shies away from directly narrative songwriting, but here he gives us a protagonist in the literal sense, a titular character through whom he’s able to color his vision of the American West as a sun-bleached and soul-scarring wasteland. In the opening verse, he sings: “Well, Cowboy Dan’s a major player in the cowboy scene, he / Goes to the reservation, drinks and gets mean, he / Goes to the desert, fires his rifle in the sky, and says / ‘God, if I have to die, you will have to die!’”. This is Blood Meridian in 4/4 meter. This is an American songwriter stabbing blindly at his culture’s open-air failures. “Float On”, this is not.

“Float On” and uplift have their places, too, let’s not be mistaken. It’s just difficult to see where they would fit into “Cowboy Dan’s” world. “Can’t do it, not even if sober”, shouts Brock in the chorus, “Can’t get that engine turned over”. He’s giving us more stagnation, told again through the lens of America’s car culture. There’s no shortage of space in the desert and plateaus west of the Rockies, but Dan couldn’t fill it up—couldn’t stake his claim or make a permanent, meaningful mark and find actualization through that creation—even with all of his focus borne razor-sharp to the task. Brock introduces us to Dan in the midst of his drunken defeat, a broken and bitter man who “wants out desperately” enough to throw himself in an attack toward God rather than completely surrender to death and complacence. It’s heavy stuff for a rock song, but Brock and his band sell it.

Jeremiah Green leans on his tambourine with each thump of his kick drum, a nod to cowboy atmosphere, while Brock expertly raises the tension of the song by pumping up his quickly-picked initial guitar melody with power chords that turn the same notes into towering versions of their previous selves. True to the way dynamics often work on The Lonesome Crowded West, though, the band takes things back down for a while right when they seem ready to burst. The first chorus segues into a surprising and beautifully mournful bridge, with Brock singing softly, “Standing in the tall grass, thinking nothing / You know we need oxygen to breathe, oxygen to breathe”.

It’s an image of life reduced to its bare reflexes, simply breathing in and out without any greater aspirations or efforts. The moment comes when we feel we know Brock’s character, Dan, as a man of reckless but admirable rebellion in the face of the forces that threaten to wear him down. Here, we see him suddenly revealed as someone with real doubt, someone who hits dreadful lows and touches the edges of palpable, bottomless despair. “Every time you think you’re walking”, Brock continues, his voice distant a few feet away from the microphone, “You’re just moving the ground / Every time you think you’re talking / You’re just moving your mouth / Every time you think you’re looking / You’re just looking down . . .”

Then, the song shifts suddenly back into the verse, Brock and Dan again riled up and ready to call God to task, however fruitlessly they know it will be. It’s another cycle on an album full of them, and perhaps Modest Mouse’s most potently realized and emotionally devastating composition.