Modest Mouse are one of those rare bands whose fragile but spirited music constantly seems to teeter precariously between brilliance and catastrophe. Since their inception in 1993 the trio has managed to make this precious balance work for the benefit of each new record they release, cultivating a kind of riskiness that is difficult to apprehend in these days of begged and borrowed rock posturing.
Front man Issac Brock bears most of the responsibility for this particular brand of unpredictability, his obtuse lyrics and famously capricious personality aiding an air of frenetic angst to the metered stability of Jeremiah Green’s drumming and Eric Judy’s melodic bass lines. Their last record The Moon and Antarctica released by Epic in 2000 marked a significant change in the band’s structure and direction. Straying cautiously yet deliberately from the jagged and tuneful pop that had been the band’s mainstay for years, the record saw Modest Mouse forge into new and ambitious territory.
Yet where The Moon and Antarctica represented a stylistic turning point for the band as they experimented with new instruments and production techniques with a their newly ample budget, Good News for People Who Love Bad News is the band’s first full-length record that features their new incarnation as a four-piece. Former Murder City Devils guitarist Dann Gallucci, a player in the band’s original line up has returned, adding a new layer of noisy guitar. Longtime drummer Jeremiah Green has left the band to pursue other projects and has been replaced by Benjamin Weikel from fellow northwest band Helio Sequence. Add to that a new producer, Dennis Herring and a score of guest musicians that include a Dixieland band, a stand-up bass player, and even a guest an appearance by Judy’s infant son Milo, Good News for People Who Love Bad News more than meets the band’s reputation for keeping themselves at least 10 paces ahead of their expectations. But like they have done in the past, Modest Mouse delivers with a record that manages to balance a swarm of new ideas with their most steadfast and well-loved tricks.
Good News for People Who Love Bad News kicks off with a breathtaking flourish. Prefaced by a sleazy horn arrangement courtesy of one of the group’s many new collaborators, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, “The World at Large” is a drowsy lullaby, punctuated by Brock’s plaintive but rhythmic vocals. Drawing on the hallucinatory naturalistic images that characterized The Moon and Antarctica, he sings about ices ages and nights smelling green as the music swells gently around him. Thus begins a theme that will carry the rest of the record. After years of inspired yet steadfastly more bitter than sweet lyrical ramblings, Brock and the gang want to give us the good news, albeit on their own rough and tumble terms. This is a song that speaks of change and hard won growth finally resting at a vantage point where one can’t help but end up delirious with both the sickness and sheer beauty of it all.
This hopeful image is underscored in “Float On”, the record’s first single that continues riding a dreamy wave in a nearly perfectly engineered transition that makes you long for the days before MP3s when song order and continuity were the marks of a conceptually perfect record. Teeming with boozy optimism, “Float On” achieves a synthesis between the band’s former raw energy and newfound gloss. Shimmery guitars and a drifting Mellotron provide a breathless atmosphere as Brock’s voice wavers deliriously between slaphappy giddiness and blind fury as he fairly shrieks “All Right!” over and over at the song’s well earned crescendo. “Ocean Breathes Salty” brings the first lap of the record to a logical completion vacillating between a sweetly meandering verse and a pretty pop chorus that neatly utilizes all of the frills of the studio without sacrificing the song’s surface nakedness. “Bury Me With It” is a choppy bit of lyrical trickery that hearkens back to earlier songs from 1996’s masterpiece Lonesome Crowded West employing hearty mouthfuls of loaded imagery including a hilarious reference to some “Mad Max Bullshit”.
Unfortunately after the first four gems, the next few tracks seem flimsy. “Dancehall” is an unremarkable concoction of jerky drum and bass barely held together by Brock’s repetitive chanting. “Bukowski” is a bittersweet contemplation on Brock’s own similarities to the writer notorious for his own instability. Caught between personal affinity and disgust he muses that he is a “pretty good read, but God who would want to be such an asshole?” “The Devil’s Workday” employs some alluring instrumentation from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, but for anyone familiar Tom Waits’ Mule Variations, it would seem that the track borrows a bit too freely from the granddaddy of gravel throated forays into the darker side of Dixie. Happily the records picks up its momentum quickly; songs like “The View” and “Satin in a Coffin” provide steady if not spectacular numbers while introspective ballads “Blame It on the Teutons”, “Black Cadillac”, and “One Chance” shine through their simple understated melodies made gorgeous through the tasteful addition of humming string arrangements.
Though it would have seemed like too much of a reach before, Modest Mouse has managed to pull off a record that is fueled more by a kind of punch-drunk hopefulness than its ruefully bewildered predecessors. While they wear their battle scars proudly, the band wants to remind their listeners not to judge themselves or others too harshly for the violence that they can’t help but endure and create.