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

“Bankrupt on Selling”

“Bankrupt on Selling” is a rare breed in Modest Mouse’s gruff bestiary: an acoustic ballad. The Lonesome Crowded West previously had the acoustic guitar take the forefront on “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child”, but that track is just as raw and seething as the most plugged-in material on this record. “Bankrupt on Selling”, on the other hand, takes things into definitively different territory. Isaac Brock has written a few of these in his tenure—“Lives” from The Moon & Antarctica(2000) and the much-maligned “Blame It on the Tetons” from Good News for People Who Love Bad News(2004) come to mind. But where that Good News track teeters dangerously on the edge of tedium, “Bankrupt on Selling” manages its melancholy with an expert hand, making it one of the most moving songs on an album full of full-steam heart-wrenchers.

Rarely one to use minor chords to carry the weight of his most lacerating lyrics, Brock indulges in “Bankrupt on Selling”. The song’s basic four-chord progression does use the minor key in the way typical of perpetually lachrymose singer-songwriters, but the resonance of the track rests in the other elements of its composition. Original guitarist Dann Gallucci provides an airy, subtle accompaniment to Brock’s foundation, his clean electric picking through the melody and supplementing it without overtaking the mix. In fact, Brock shoulders the whole brunt of the performance, without Eric Judy’s rhythmic counterpoints or Jeremiah Green’s busy drumming to provide support. He does so with grace, a word not often associated with Modest Mouse’s squall.

If “Bankrupt on Selling” is a political song, it’s one that filters the political through the personal. Yes, Brock’s taking issue with a buy-and-sell culture that equates the market with God (neither of which gives Brock much faith)—“And all of the angels / They’d sell off your soul / For a set of new wings / And anything gold”, he sings. The apostles plot to sell out Jesus Christ for some stylish new sandals, like “the businessers / In unlimited hell / Where they buy and they sell / And they sell all their trash to each other” even though it brings them no joy or anything resembling fulfillment. It can be a tough sell for a rock star to lecture his audience about economics, but then Brock hadn’t yet found success when he wrote that song. More to the point, his real target—as ever—is himself.

“Well, I’ll go to college / And I’ll learn some big words”, he sings in the final verse, “And I’ll talk real loud / Goddamn right I’ll be heard / You’ll remember the guy who said all those big words he must’ve learned in college”. The way those final lines break free completely from the meter of the song, the way they spill out past that formal structure, mirrors beautifully Brock’s self-deprecation about his education. He’s choosing to be a sloppy poet. No, he didn’t go to college (and he dropped out of high school), and he’s aware that plenty of people would consider him a loser, a social leech, trailer trash. At this point, he doesn’t seem entirely convinced otherwise, himself. Those “businessers” talk right and they’re part of a world—appealing or not—shut off to him and his station completely.

That isolation permeates the song. In the end, Brock’s alone again: “It took a long time / ‘Til I came clean with myself / I come clean out of love with my lover / Loved her more / When she used to be sober, and I was kinder”. He leaves the final note of resentment not for the religious hypocrites or the corporate suits or even his ex-lover, but for himself. Brock’s candor, his willingness to find fault in himself and not just his surroundings, more than saves “Bankrupt on Selling” from sounding ham-fisted. It elevates the song to its proper place as one of Modest Mouse’s strongest accomplishments, all the more memorable for moving the band out of its musical comfort zone.

“Styrofoam Boots / It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”

“Styrofoam Boots / It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright” begins with some fleet-fingered acoustic work by Isaac Brock, his voice slightly distorted, as if he downsized his band to a single-man shower stall recording studio. He’s back to mulling his old devils, those questions of God and man and who’s going to come out on top, in the end. This time, though, Brock’s tone sounds quietly unperturbed as he pours over those concerns—lighthearted ones, you know, like whether or not God exists and if he does if he actually has our best interests at heart. “Well, all’s not well, but I’m told it’ll all be quite nice”, he sings as if to himself, “You’ll be drowned in boots like mafia, but your feet’ll still float like Christ”. Think about that image: Brock’s got that walk-on-water routine covered, just in the wrong direction. If that’s not a frame-it-and-put-it-in-the-Met picture of human foibles, I don’t know what could be.

See, Brock’s not out-and-out denying the presence of a higher power. “I’m in heaven trying to figure out which stack”, he continues, “They’re gonna stuff us atheists into when Peter and his monkey laugh / And I laugh with them–not sure what at / They point and say, ‘We’ll keep you in the back’”. That’s not an antagonistic relationship. God’s doorman lets him in, even though Brock doesn’t even believe that God owns the place. Sure, he’ll be in the backroom, “polishing halos, baking manna, and gas”, but he’s still up there.

It’s notable, too, that it’s not Brock but a barroom stranger, “looking a bit like everyone I ever seen”, who comes off as spiteful, saying, “Anytime anyone gets on their knees to pray, well, it makes my tailbone ring”. The stranger believes that “God takes care of himself / And you of you”. That Brock puts these words in the mouth of someone else, the type so slick that he “moves just like Crisco disco” and polished enough to “breathe one-hundred percent Listerine”—that’s telling. The better part of Brock’s mind might agree, but there’s another part that just can’t go along with it. That’s the part of him that thinks St. Peter’s probably not such a bad guy, after all. His doubt, his unwillingness to completely cede a reluctant acknowledgment of the possibilities of faith, that’s what keeps him writing about God and existential crises through all of his albums. If he knew for sure, it wouldn’t interest him anymore.

That’s where the upbeat tone of this song comes from, too. Sometimes, Brock seems to be saying, it’s fine not to know. The ambiguity and ambivalence drive him crazy on plenty of other tracks, but here it seems to just make sense for seven minutes. The rest of Modest Mouse crashes into life about three minutes in after Brock’s finished his acoustic almost-apologia, and their easy groove joins him in the refrain: “It’s all nice / It’s all nice / It’s all nice on ice / All right”. In other words, when you can’t rack your brain about The Meaning of It All anymore (like we just did through the whole of The Lonesome Crowded West), just sit back and have a drink.

This article was originally published as a weekly series that began on 8 November 2010. It’s been revamped for modern browsers.