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

“Trailer Trash”

If The Lonesome Crowded West’s default mode is mouth-foaming anger, “Trailer Trash” is the wounded heart at the center of the album. Its laconic despair goes a long way toward expressing the other side of Isaac Brock and Modest Mouse’s vitriol, the place of real, self-lacerating hurt where all that rage actually comes from. Here, for the first and perhaps only time on the record, Brock seems uncomfortable—or at least dejected—in his mantle of the blue-collar prophet. If the song, like so many others, focuses on the story of a failed relationship, it does so in order to bring out the vivid particulars of Brock’s narrative style and characterization. The sense of poverty—the emotional poverty, yes, but also the actual, abject poverty—Brock conveys is just as integral to the song’s impact and vision as the lovelorn imagery he creates. True to Modest Mouse form, both poverties are cycles, seemingly impossible to escape.

Both Brock and Eric Judy spend the majority of the song with their instruments locked in a single chord progression, Brock alternating between scratchy palm-muting and well-placed bursts of power chords and Judy laying down the song’s primary melody in a head-bobbing bassline. That repetition, combined with Jeremiah Green’s tom-heavy beat sitting front-and-center in the mix, gives the track an almost trance-like focus similar to that seen in its emotional counterpart, “Heart Cooks Brain”. The verses’ locked-solid foundation, by virtue of their steady consistency, also points the listener’s attention toward Brock’s lyrics. It’s easy to quickly internalize such a rhythmic piece of music, so our ears are free to actively pick out the details in Brock’s narrative while the rest of our body nods along in reflexive step to the beat.

“Eating snowflakes with plastic forks / And the paper plate—of course / You think of everything”, Brock begins, his voice understated and terse, simply mumbling the last few syllables. The image combines his trademark surrealism (here, the strange idea of eating snowflakes as a meal provides a sense of fragility) with a perfectly placed bit of realism—the paper plate suggests immediately the cheapness of the song’s emotional and physical atmosphere. “A short love with a long divorce / And a couple of kids—of course, / They don’t mean anything”, he continues, all that parallelism, short-versus-long and everything-versus-anything, more evidence of his poetic economy.

The next lines shade the picture with a darker note: “Live in trailers with no class / Goddamn, I hope I can pass / High school—means nothing”. This narrator, and the lover he both misses and can’t stand, is crushingly young to be dealing with these patently adult problems. The divorce in question is likely that of the narrator’s parents, and we understand implicitly that their situation parallels (there it is, again) that of their son’s with his lover. When he sings at the end of the verse, “Goddamn, I am such a jerk / I can’t do anything”, we don’t hear it as the self-centered melodrama of a normal teenager. Rather, Brock taps into the lives of the poor, rural people with whom he identifies and about whom he writes, often lives with few opportunities and plenty of stifled promise. It’s hard not to share his narrator’s belief that he’s doomed from the start.

In the chorus, dialed-down and muted with harmonics and light snare hits, Brock’s speaker talks to his absent lover in that high school language: “And I know that I miss you / And I’m sorry if I dissed you”. It’s plain speech, not high poetry, and effective because of that. This kid, with so many odds stacked against him, just blames himself. Brock’s ability to let us see the greater picture, the broader forces at work here, without letting his narrator do so, makes the song’s despair hit us all that much harder. The second half of “Trailer Trash” sees Brock’s guitar finally breaking out of its groove, as he bends notes until they threaten to break and lets his harmonics squeal and echo away. It’s a fitting end to a song of quiet desperation, cathartic but not at all comforting.

“Out of Gas”

“Out of Gas” marks something of a détente in The Lonesome Crowded West, an emotional cooling. Isaac Brock’s gently-whammied riff bounces along at a leisurely pace, as his bandmates follow suit and keep things toned down. The riff, as the central focus on the song, is as subtle of an earworm as anything else Brock produces on the record. In other words, “Out of Gas” marks the first real foray of The Lonesome Crowded West into straightforward pop songwriting. You can trace that pop streak through the band’s early catalog fairly easily, from its beginnings in “Breakthrough” on to “Out of Gas” and “Polar Opposites” (we’ll get to that soon enough) and into “Third Planet” and “Paper Thin Walls”. The rest of that trajectory, of course, should be well known to anyone who owned a radio in 2004.

Critics who dismiss Modest Mouse’s pop sensibilities generally began to do so after the band started to have some commercial success. That goes to say that fans embraced older songs like “Out of Gas” (and those Moon & Antarctica tracks up there, even more so) readily and without complaint (it’s also worth mentioning, if we’re taking this path, that We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank seems continually misunderstood by many listeners, derided as a too-polished “radio record” when it holds the band’s most aggressive—and aggressively loud—material since, well, The Lonesome Crowded West). Whatever controversy the hit single “Float On” and its ilk would later create, the fact remains that Modest Mouse was, from the very outset, able to craft remarkable pop songs when it so chose. “Out of Gas” is one such gem, easy to overlook, surrounded as it is by show-stopping tracks on the rest of this album. Of course, it’s that very restraint that makes it successful.

Thematically, the song fits perfectly into The Lonesome Crowded West’s car-and-road-obsessed lyrics. Brock, a perennially restless songwriter, changes things up enough to keep the theme interesting here. If his problem on the rest of the album is one of amplitude—too much open highway, too many people, too many cars waiting around—the problem here is the opposite. “Out of gas”, he sings, “Out of road / Out of car / I don’t know how I’m gonna go”. That feeling is a familiar one to anyone restless enough to hop in the car when there’s nowhere, really, even to go. Brock is sick of the perpetual motion in which he so often finds himself in his songs, but once he’s without the option to move, he discovers he’s just as anxious when stationary.

The “You will come soon, too / You will come down too soon” wordplay in the song’s chorus gives us another example of Brock the lyricist focused incessantly on cycles, both verbal and physical. He’s implying that his listener will find himself or herself in the same position soon enough, coming down from the high that addiction to motion and restless activity provides. It will not, he expects, be pleasant for you, either.

“Long Distance Drunk”

“Long Distance Drunk” is the only track on The Lonesome Crowded West that actually sounds like a b-side. On an album full of unabashed guitar rock, “Long Distance Drunk” pushes that instrument to the side, focusing instead on Jeremiah Green’s stuttering beat and Eric Judy’s bass-guitar-by-way-of-moonshine-jug drone. Isaac Brock palm-mutes a simple acoustic chord progression, joining his bandmates in their atmosphere of rhythmic navel-gazing. In between “Out of Gas” and “Shit Luck”, it’s hard for the song not to sound like an interlude. Taken on its own, it fares somewhat better.

“Hang it up now or never”, Brock sings, “Hang it up again”. He sounds tentative, a fitting tone for that slight hesitation that comes before you call your ex on a tequila-fueled whim. “Eight AM and someone calls you on the telephone / You want to be by yourself and all alone”, he’ll sing later, his vocals pushed into the back of the mix, almost an afterthought. It is an afterthought, after all, since he knows he’ll make the call, anyway. You’d do the same thing, wouldn’t you?

The track’s repetitive lyrics don’t hit as hard or in quite the same manner as the rest of Brock’s writing on the album. But then, they’re not supposed to. “Hang it up now or never / Hang it up again / Long distance drunk”—these are the stakes, slight in the bigger picture but painfully large when you’re sitting there with the telephone and a spinning room around you. Nicole Johnson’s airy vocals provide a nice counterpoint to Brock’s plaintiveness and do just enough to keep things from getting too self-indulgent. Perhaps swapping out this track for “Baby Blue Sedan”, (included on the vinyl pressing of the record), would’ve made sense to many fans, but we have “Long Distance Drunk”. Sometimes understatement can work just as well.