The scenario here is a familiar one. Guitar, bass, drums trio Modest Mouse, heroes of the indie scene and its self-appointed rock intelligentsia have signed with a major and everyone is mighty concerned that the band will turn sell-out and leave the kids sad and alone. Fear not. I can’t imagine anything here on The Moon and Antarctica that I wouldn’t expect to hear on a Modest Mouse recording, whatever their home address might be. In fact, I would say that this new release happily involves even fewer spazzy rawk out excesses than Modest Mouse’s last full release of new material, 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West (Up). On The Moon and Antarctica, the band’s sound is completely in tact — there is no pandering to the unwashed masses here. No fancy producer has tried to smooth the edges off Isaac Brock’s wise beyond his years urban twang. No corporate monster has forced the band into adding too-obvious ambient atmospherics, or into writing a straight-up pop love song.
If anything has changed, it might be that the band sounds more confident than ever because they have chosen to focus on the kind of moody, almost literate, mid- to down-tempo songs about aimless travel and psychic isolation that got them people’s attention in the first place. That kind of focus is signalled on the opener “3rd Planet,” with its refrain “The earth is shaped exactly like the universe / If you go straight long enough you’ll end up exactly where you were.” Setting aside debates about space and time, Brock’s urgent vocal, consistently pushing and pulling the beat, telescopes evolution, making it into a kind of eccentric existential reality check.
Here, and throughout this release, Brock’s guitar playing, while rarely flashy, is nonetheless wonderful because he seems to approach his playing like a good folk singer, choosing his notes and articulation to accompany and augment his vocals, rather than approaching his responsibilities as the guitarist as somehow removed from his responsibilities as the vocalist. It is precisely that kind of playing — call it the result of good arranging or whatever you like — that puts Modest Mouse far above most rock bands out there because it makes simple, straightforward rock songs sound clever and well-crafted. More than that though, it gives the band a singular sound since the songs are allowed to be built on their strengths as players and songwriters rather than some imagined-to-be-hip sound.
To me, this latest release is a real gem that is full of stand out material, from “Dark Center of the Universe” (which the band has been playing live for years) with its naked declaration of individual responsibility: “Well it took a lot of work to be the ass that I am / And I’m pretty damn sure that anyone can / Easily, equally fuck ya over,” to “Lives” with its direct acceptance of the absurdities of this mortal coil: “My mom’s god is a woman and my mom she is a witch / I like this / My hell comes from inside / Comes from inside myself / Why fight this / Everyone’s afraid of their own life / If you could be anything you want I bet you’d be disappointed / Am I right?”
The rain is dripping off your window. You’ll be on the road for hours. You pass stands of Douglas fir. Relax and let Modest Mouse take you away.