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

“Shit Luck”

Isaac Brock claims the Pixies as a seminal influence on Modest Mouse’s sound, and Frank Black and co.’s general blueprints can be found in much of the band’s material: Brock’s sing-shout vocal style, the similarly soft-loud dynamics of his group’s music itself, the overall focus on guitar, guitar, guitar. Still, beyond this shared DNA, the Pixies’ grip on Modest Mouse’s collective brain doesn’t usually seem too overt. The band even seems to acknowledge that split on “Head South”, when Brock sings, “A surf rock band / From the land of plenty / Surf rock bands / With no surf, just pine trees.” In other words, Modest Mouse is missing that one crucial element of the Pixies’ formula: Joey Santiago’s riptide-ready fretwork. These dudes are from the Pacific Northwest—they’ve got evergreens in their sound, not board shorts.

“Shit Luck” is somewhat of a different story. No, you won’t mistake Modest Mouse for the Del-tones here. However, the track might be the closest thing to a Pixies song the band’s ever recorded. The arpeggiating riff that anchors the song sees Brock going as far as he’ll go toward aping surf-ish repetitive tremolo picking. It’s surf rock filtered through the dusty grit of The Lonesome Crowded West. Think rolling waves of cars on the highway instead of fresh blue-green saltwater.

“THIS PLANE IS DEFINITELY CRASHING!” shouts Brock to open the song, in a way that begs for capitalization. The rest of his lyrics proclaim similar bursts of, well, shit luck. “THIS BOAT IS OBVIOUSLY SINKING!” and “THIS BUILDING’S TOTALLY BURNING DOWN!” follow up. The matter-of-fact statements and slightly off-kilter rhythm in Brock’s delivery echo Frank Black, too, in its lightly funny, lightly frightening tone. Brock ups the ante beyond Black’s usual ironic detachment by finishing on “And my / And my / AND MY / AND MY/ AND MY HEART IS SLOWLY DRYING UP!”

All of the sudden, the music—up until this point completely bash-and-slam repetition, all squelching guitar and abused snare—cuts out. Both the black humor and the undeniable adrenaline rush of the track get instantly sucked away. We’re left with a stark feeling of having run out of time, Brock bringing his metaphors of destruction into clearer light. It’s not a subtle song, but it’s one that saves the final punch in a series of body blows for the very last second.

“Truckers Atlas”

Musically, “Truckers Atlas” gives us some of Modest Mouse’s most focused performances, each member of the band locking into rhythm as tightly as the Jaws of Life biting into twisted metal. Jeremiah Green lays down perhaps the most inspired beat of his life, a flurry of toms and snare and hi-hat (and that delectably placed chime on the bell of his ride cymbal) that provides the track with enough muscle to make Brock’s odometer abuse sound believable. If we could figure out a way to liquefy that beat and siphon it into our gas tanks, we’d all be set for life. Brock and Eric Judy hit upon riffs at once raw and smoothly danceable, displaying the mastery of syncopation so integral to the band’s sound. The composition is—all right, fine—a well-oiled machine, never faltering for a moment.

“I’m going to Colorado”, shouts Brock at the song’s outset, “to unload my head”. Once again, he’s trying for catharsis via perpetual motion. If you expect it to work this time around, you haven’t been paying attention. “I’m going to New York City / And that’s in New York, friends”, he continues, “I’m going to Arizona / Sex on the rocks, all warm and red / And we bled”. This desire for the all-out expansion of yourself into every corner of the country, the frustration that builds and builds at being stuck in the same place until the adrenaline could seem to carry you to the Rockies and the East River and back again—that’s “Truckers Atlas”.

Whether Brock’s working with a narrator who actually does make these drives over and over, or if he’s just in his bedroom plotting that itinerary onto points on the ceiling, that doesn’t matter much. We know what he’s saying, and we feel it with every thud of the kick drum. “I’m going up to Alaska / I’m gonna get off scotch-fucking-free / And we all did”, he yells, and who wouldn’t want to get away, clean and easy?

Of course, it doesn’t work that way. When Brock shifts from pounding chords to reverb-laden picking, he also shifts the song’s tone from aggressive manifesto to a tacit admission that he doesn’t quite believe that everything will work out as he claims. “I don’t feel / And I feel great” he sings more quietly now, “I sold my atlas by the freight stairs / I do lines / And I cross roads / I cross the lines of all the great state roads”. That last line sounds less triumphant than desperate, and we get the sense that whatever he just said to the contrary, he feels way too much.

“I’m going up, going over to Montana / You got yourself a trucker’s atlas / You knew you were / All hot—well, maybe you’ll go and blow a gasket”—it’s the perfect metaphor in Brock’s compositional voice, the nervous breakdown as mechanical failure. When he goes on to sing, “You start at the northwest corner / Go down through California / Beeline, you might drive three days / Three nights to the tip of Florida”, he’s not selling it as any real way to live, not to us and not to himself, either.

The band picks up steam again, and Brock screams, “Do you speak the lingo? / No, no! / How far does your road go? / Oh, no, you don’t know!” Then, he’s back to the promises of Colorado, New York, Alaska, and freedom from accountability. It’s the push-pull, the cycle, his m.o. Anger, defeat, resilience, looped on and on. The last six minutes of the track embody that idea, as he and his band play out a musical coda with minimal variations. “Truckers Atlas” becomes, in that, a song for a long drive, the suggestion that we’ll all keep treading pavement until we find a place where we seem to fit, however unrealistic we might sometimes know that to be.

“Polar Opposites”

Isaac Brock doesn’t mope. His songs have their share of navel-gazing, minor chords, and heart wringing. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a track where Brock sounds indulgent, caught up in the personal mythologizing—the romanticizing of your own private pains—that comes so often with depression. The Lonesome Crowded West is full of songs about being stuck or stalled out. “Polar Opposites” is another one of them. However, like “Heart Cooks Brain” or “Trailer Trash” or the other more overtly melancholy tracks on the album, “Polar Opposites” doesn’t shuffle along, mumbling to itself in a sad-sack reverie. Instead, Brock and Modest Mouse turn frustration into energy, anathematizing listlessness in a way that only the best of rock n’ roll music can do.

As mentioned before in these pages, “Polar Opposites” sees Modest Mouse leaning heavily on its pop sensibilities. On an album as raw and aggressive as The Lonesome Crowded West, this type of songwriting could seem out of place, but the band knows so well how to write a hook, how to use melody and major chords to command attention, that “Polar Opposites” represents just another peak in the album’s trajectory. It’s the track you’d lift from the album and play for your friend who needs to be eased into a record as disarmingly dense as this one. It goes down easy.

“Polar Opposites” opens with the band in head-nodding, foot-tapping mode. Jeremiah Green’s kick drum locks up with Eric Judy’s restless bass groove, while Brock palm-mutes his power chords and lets his plaintive vocals carry the melody. “Polar opposites don’t push away”, he sings, “It’s the same / On the weekends as the rest of the days / And I know I should go / But I will probably stay / And that’s all you can do about some things”. It’s an unusually reserved lyric for a guy who, one track ago, was screaming his lungs out about speeding across the country to get away from anything and everything that counted him as a familiar face. Lest we think he’s finally settling into accepting the push-pull of this album’s world, Brock and the band hit things into overdrive for the chorus.

Brock lets those chords ring out in full volume, singing as loudly as his voice will let him without breaking: “I’m trying / I’m trying to / Drink away the part of the day / That I cannot sleep away”. The way he and the band frame it musically, the sentiment isn’t all defeatist. Rather, it’s a rallying call, a way of Brock’s asserting himself—even if that self-assertion comes in the form of blanking out the days instead of letting them blank him out.

The song builds to an instrumental climax, Green keeping his toms busy while Judy settles into that bassline. Brock uses his bandmates’ steadiness as a means for his guitar to explore the track’s melody, chewing it up and spitting it out in bursts of feedback squall and stop-start, beefed-up power chords. It’s triumphalism in the name of self-pity—a sentiment that’s been given a bad name by innumerable lesser bands, but try not putting your fist in the air when that chorus hits.