Modest Mouse succeeds as a band on many fronts, but the one I find most affirming is their distinct capability to pinpoint the unifying and revelatory in life without sacrificing its complexities or ambiguities. Their music has a unique voice and their lyrics certainly pull from the specific experiences of the band and frontman Isaac Brock, but they elucidate truths, both obvious and subtle, that can reach anyone but are especially essential—and perceivably universal—to scared, directionless youth. MM doesn’t shy away from daily contradictions or our own emotional blinders that color and taint perception, but revel in it instead and embrace it as confusing and necessary. We live in shades of gray and nothing that’s worth a damn has an easy answer, and MM understands and communicates that better than any other band in my lifetime.
“Elevating the mundane” is a phrase used to describe a lot of indie rock bands whose music is languid and low-stakes but who make it sound like an epic struggle (think Pavement and Guided by Voices), but while much of MM’s music concerns the mundane, they don’t elevate it so much as demystify it without losing its positive qualities. MM appreciates that the mundane only becomes elevated when recognized as mundane; viewing it as an end to itself only serves to sacrifice its inherent irrelevance. They capture the intimacy of drug-fueled road trips and staying up all night drinking beer and talking bullshit with your friends, but they seemingly have enough distance from them to view these events for what they are: a personal growth pit stop that is both necessary and fleeting.
Part of this has to do with the fact that even when MM is meditating on the mundane, they explore it in “big” terms, i.e. from an abstract, what-does-it-all-mean perspective. While I believe it’s detrimental to attempt to decode or decipher their lyrics, there are certain lyrical threads and reoccurring thematic material in MM songs that are impossible to deny: isolation, religious faith, pop psychology, drugs, the commodification of—and subsequent loss of identity in—the Pacific Northwest, the trappings of rural living, open roads, philosophical terror, and a general, bleeding sentiment that screams “I’m pretty sure I’m fucked, but let’s see what tomorrow holds.” It’s a testament to the band that they can tread material that would politely be described as depressing and refuse to only see a downside. MM embraces the darkness to illustrate that it’s not insurmountable and that the struggle itself is where inner peace lies. The universe works on a math equation that never even ever really even ends in the end.
Throughout this week (thanks to Hendrik), I will explore my relationship with MM’s illustrious output not to try to come to some erudite, all-encompassing conclusion about them or me, or to achieve some sort of objectivity, or to write some unifying theory about their importance, but to simply meditate on their music. By combining personal reflection and critical assessment in these posts, I hope to discuss MM through a constructed narrative that tells the story of both the band and my connection with them. It’s a long journey and we don’t really know where we’re going. But come along for the ride.
It’s funny how often we make strange, regrettable choices when we try to forge an identity outside of the pack. Even though our rationale made so much sense at the time, we only see how myopic and irrational our decisions sometimes were with the benefit of hindsight. A search for self inevitably will lead to bumps in the road, but by reflecting on them we can understand our faults and mistakes.
I’ve chosen to start with “Float On” for a few reasons: 1) it was the first Modest Mouse song I ever heard and dovetails with an important part in my musical development, 2) it was the first MM song to gain mainstream popularity and their only #1 Billboard hit, and 3) it achieves the ultimate goal of a pop single: to capture a popular sentiment and express it in the broadest terms possible. It’s not their best song, nor is it my favorite, but to leave “Float On” out of the discussion is to overlook a crucial point in their career and to deny a legitimate gateway for many, many people. Not all of us had the pleasure of starting with The Lonesome Crowded West.
Even though it was not that long ago, it bears repeating that mid-2004 was a strange, depressing time for liberal-minded Americans. To recap: America had just gone to war with Iraq on shaky evidence which our government sold to us by capitalizing on our post-9/11 fears, President George W. Bush and his cabinet were forcing stringent, unforgiving foreign and domestic policy agendas that would define the better part of the decade, and a new brand of neo-conservatism was dominating the political discourse. The state of the country was in disarray and the now almost irreparable political polarization was just getting started. Senator John Kerry would lose the election by fewer than 2% of the vote not more than four months later. The left felt marginalized and voiceless like never before, and it didn’t seem like it would ever turn around.
When interviewed for The A.V. Club, Brock explained that he was inspired to write “Float On,” because he was “fed up with how bad shit had been going,” and former President George W. Bush was “just a fucking daily dose of bad news,” so he wanted to write something positive. I can’t help but wonder whether the widespread success of “Float On” can somehow be attributed to that very sentiment. For a while, it certainly felt like that song was everywhere. It was nominated for a Grammy and was featured on both American Idol and an OnStar commercial, and let’s not forget its prime placement on Kidz Bop 7. “Float On” secured MM’s placement on Modern Rock radio stations for the foreseeable future and brought attention to the band and Brock’s powerful, yelping voice. I’m not trying to argue the politics is the primary factor behind MM’s mainstream success because I’m not entirely sure how one does that, I’m just saying that to me “Float On” and the cultural and political atmosphere at the time are seemingly intertwined. The two things I remember most from that year was the tail end of Bush’s first term and “Float On” being culturally inescapable.
A small confession: I am a former musical conservative. “What does that mean?” you rightly ask. Basically it means that my music taste was so well categorized to my liking that I refused to open my mind to—and openly dismissed—anything except what I was already exposed to. I grew up exclusively on classic rock and I was fed the rhetoric that rock music—and music as an art form—died in 1979. I staunchly believed that I was listening to “real music,” while others were listening to garbage sold for mass consumption. Naturally, this made me very dismissive to literally anything outside my wheelhouse. I sneered at people who listened to and, God forbid, enjoyed pop music of any kind, knowing that in my heart they simply weren’t enlightened yet. If any modern song or artist was remotely accepted by large quantities of people, it was poison in my mind. I was frustrated and embittered no one was heeding my calls to action to disavow any art from the present in favor of art forty years outside of direct experience. It wasn’t that I liked my music and they liked theirs, everyone had to like my music. Of course I was full of shit and was acting like an unreasonable asshole, but in my head, if I couldn’t hold on to that what else did I have?
But in the summer of 2004, I was first introduced to music of the 21st Century. I was attending summer camp at the time and Good News for People Who Love Bad News was released two or three months before. I was lodged in a cabin with eight other kids who all coincidentally had the same three songs on their respective iPods that I eventually grew to love. The first was The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” and the other two were Good News songs: “Black Cadillac,” because Isaac Brock yells “fuck” and that makes you feel like a bad ass when you’re a pubescent, and, of course, “Float On.”
I know I haven’t talked much about the song itself, but I think it’s fairly simplistic. Built on a drumbeat composed of hi-hats and snares and an earworm of a guitar line, the song screams optimism in the face of adversity. “Float On” is hardly subtle, but it earns every bit of its earnestness. Brock sells desperation like no one’s business and he almost sounds like a preacher urgently trying to tell his convent that things may seem bad now, but the bell hasn’t been rung yet (“Even if things get heavy, we’ll all float on.”). Almost on cue, long-time Modest Mouse fanatics came out of the woodwork to impose a dividing line: those who were fans before and after “Float On,” citing the song’s manufactured, sellout style as a cheap grab for popularity. If they’re still around, I say to those people: by not embracing the song on its own terms, which exists purely as an avenue for joy and catharsis, seems ridiculous. It sacrifices no part of MM’s style or Brock’s lyricism in favor of commercial success and is a pop song that doesn’t seem like it was focus-grouped by marketing executives condescending to the younger generation.
“Float On” is the epitome of pop construction, with its vague platitudes and sing-a-long chorus, and it would certainly have succeeded regardless of the year or political climate, but I can’t help but think that it was a song that certain people needed at the time. In a culture that’s rapidly becoming entirely self-selecting, with people choosing their own narratives and tuning out the ones that complicate a set worldview, art is what should unify and bring people out of their own camps. It would take a couple more years for me to really start branching out musically, and much longer to start renouncing my earlier stubbornness, but “Float On” was the beginning of a new journey built on open-mindedness rather than intolerance. It held dear the promise that things may look like shit now, but they won’t forever, a fact that we can never completely comprehend when the going gets tough. Sometimes it’s simple as, “We’ll all float on, okay.”
Modest Mouse - Dramamine
“And you think you’ve figured out everything/ I think I know my geography pretty damn well.”
In Pitchfork’s excellent documentary on Lonesome Crowded West (it really covers much of their 90’s period), Isaac Brock and company discuss their modest beginnings as a band (seriously: no pun intended), the inspiration for some of their songs, and an independent music scene that’s unrecognizable from our current vantage point. But the most interesting parts of the documentary are when the band talks about the changing landscape of the Pacific Northwest, and how strip malls and other mass-consumer institutions are removing the free-range environment that defines the area. There’s a wistful tone when the topic comes up and the nostalgia for the region’s former, open-spaced identity (and, to a lesser extent, the communal nature of independent music) is palpable. Almost all of Modest Mouse’s songs can be described as “driving music,” made for the languorous, yet chaotic pace of cross-country travel. MM’s songs illustrate the tension between the alienation and the opportunity of the open road in their songwriting and musical craft so successfully that many of their songs seem to have an unofficial visual component of a wide windshield showing a path leading to the ends of the Earth.
I would cite “Dramamine” as one of the five or ten Modest Mouse songs that define their sound. “Dramamine” leads off their first studio album, This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, but while the album is certainly a rousing debut, “Dramamine” is such a shot to the gut that the rest of the album has a difficult time living up to it. It’s almost a statement of purpose that serves to introduce the listener to themes in MM’s music: loss of control, intoxication as a means of survival, and an innate fear of the future.
Grounded with a hypnotic guitar line, “Dramamine” places the listener in a heady trance and refuses to let go. The song opens with the lyric “Traveling, swallowing Dramamine,” which perfectly establishes the setting and the mood. It elicits the image of someone driving in a shitty sedan, bored and stoned with both nothing and everything to lose. The narrator can’t seem to “focus on anything” as he argues with himself about the nature of the rationale he tells himself to keep going (“I’ve said what I’d said and you know what I mean.”). When Brock remarks “we kiss on the mouth but still cough down our sleeves,” it calls attention to the narrator’s doomed, one-sided conversation and his questions on our perception of intimacy. Brock sings in a tone somewhere between defiance and doubt as the narrator tries—and fails—to convince himself that he knows what to do (“You said what you need so you’ll get more”…“If you could just milk it for everything…”). Self-doubt may be a well-worn subject, but it’s elevated to sublimity because of Brock’s commitment to his lyrics and delivery. He makes the listener believe he/the narrator is teetering on the edge of a cliff.
I’ve done my best to differentiate between Brock and the song’s narrator because I don’t want to get bogged down in an “intent of the author” rabbit hole, but also because the sparse narrative is nothing compared to the images the song elicits in my mind. In “Dramamine,” the music parallels the narrator’s stasis. The chords change in the middle section after the second verse, giving a lighter, more optimistic feel to the song, before it returns to its original state when the kick drum hits around the 4:23 mark. It mirrors the repetitive, highs-and-lows nature of recreational drug use that “Dramamine” most certainly concerns, but also the narrator’s stuck-in-neutral mindset. It’s easy to lose sight of the small wins we accrue on a daily basis when compared to the grand scheme of things, especially when you’re in a rut.
Take the lyric I pulled at the top: it greatly illustrates how we can miss the forest for the trees without even realizing it. You’re on the road and you know where you’re literally going towards, but you don’t know where you are going. The music keeps you locked into a heady mindset to remind us how easy it is for us to get lost in ourselves. We put on bold, confident masks to hide insecurity and fear, and often need reminders of the beauty of things outside of ourselves. When I hear “Dramamine,” I hear someone driving on a whim, looking out the window and noticing what’s left of the Northwest, hoping to God that he can will himself out of his turmoil.
What does it mean to be comfortable? Does comfort stem from a specific setting or is it a state of mind? Is it external or internal? I think many would argue the latter because it endorses a person’s agency, i.e. one can become comfortable anywhere if they set their mind to it; however, I think it’s a continuum as opposed to the binary scenario that the question presupposes. A positive state of mind can influence you to think positively about a location and vice versa. The opposite is also true: a negative state of mind can influence your perception of a location that isn’t inherently bad and vice versa. But I would say on balance that comfort is an overrated luxury that is undoubtedly essential. Comfort engenders apathy and indifference, but only when someone is bathing in comfort can they really see its detrimental qualities. We need to be comfortable to recognize that it’s a lie.
“Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine,” and really all of Lonesome Crowded West, concerns many, many things, but my favorite aspect is the idea of critiquing comfort as a state of mind in relation to the loss of innate identity in the American West. “TLGS” routinely draws from archetypal images of the West—such as “a rattle snake up in Buffalo, Montana,” “ghost towns,” “the old sheriff,”—but also draws comparisons to suburbia as well, evidenced by repeated mentions of Orange Julius’ and malls, in order to make the song both regionally specific and universal. “The West” is such a mythic concept in American history—a land of opportunity, open ranges, freedom from urban oppression, etc.—that it has become ingrained in regional and national identities, but a widespread consumerist mentality has rid the West of its geographical purity in favor of strip malls and fast food chains. Much of MM’s early work centers on that crippling fear, but it bleeds into every song on LCW.
This is probably a good opportunity to talk about my feelings on, and bias towards, LCW. LCW is my favorite Modest Mouse album by a long shot and I would argue their best album overall. It’s a perfect distillation of the different shades of their sound and its raw, unencumbered style makes it a classic indie rock album that doesn’t sound the least bit dated (not that that’s the worst thing in the world). LCW has the most cohesive vision, as I’ve generally outlined above, but isn’t afraid to embrace extreme tonal shifts as a part of that vision. The album has a beating heart but has a rough edge that achieves the tricky balance of incorporating and alienating listeners. To me, LCW is MM’s peak and I’m partial to its frank, homespun sound over anything else in their catalogue (although, in the interest of full disclosure, MM has never been better than the one-two, 30-song punch of LCW and Moon & Antarctica, but I’ll discuss that later).
Part of the reason why I love LCW so much is because Isaac Brock has never been better lyrically. MM has always been consistent in the quality and specificity of their lyrics and the mini-narratives they spin, but unlike on later albums, LCW is a little less direct in its execution. Brock expresses wise, ambiguous beliefs in obscure language that includes visually striking metaphors, character studies, and living, breathing images that give the listener a sense of time and place. LCW’s lyrics seep into the mind and encourage rumination and reflection, and the truths it attempts to presents are a little less easy to ascertain but all the more worthwhile.
Right off the bat, “TLGS” discusses the nature of being trapped not in a specific place, but in life altogether (“From the top of the ocean, yeah/From the bottom of the sky, goddamn/Well I get claustrophobic, I can/You know that I can.”). However, it doesn’t lament this fact, but meditates on it allowing it to inform the rest of the song rather than overwhelm it. “TLGS” isn’t about anything really; it consists of an assortment of moments and images but doesn’t feel the need to narrativize them. There’s the “man with teeth like God’s shoeshine” who is presented as an omniscient, pervasive figure, the Orange Julius stands and the subsequent comparison between consumers and the thick syrup both of which are “standing in line,” the malls that “are soon to be ghost towns,” the rattle snake biting the leg of the old sheriff. It all paints a picture of restrained normalcy, a routine that doesn’t serve anything but the comfort of having a routine.
Brock adds bits of commentary throughout “TLGS”—not the least of which are the loud-quiet-loud tone undoubtedly influenced by the Pixies—that at the very least suggest a sarcastic, bitter perspective to this normalcy clearly driven by capitalist desire and a fear of a structureless environment. “If you could compact your conscience…if you could bottle and sell it…” the narrator asks himself as he questions everything in front of him. Brock draws sharp contrasts between those who give a shit and “go to the family doctor” to alleviate their short-term troubles and those who give a shit but exist solely on the corners because they see the fallacies within. He predicates this on the idea that there’s a “sense of happiness that comes from hurting deep down inside,” which illustrates the standard blissful ignorance vs. unhappy awareness argument beautifully.
It comes back to this idea of comfort as a means of happiness. There’s no doubt that the characters in “TLGS” who engorge on patented fruit smoothies at the mall or buy friends at the grocery store or even rely on the existence of the man with sparkly, shimmering teeth are happy in the traditional sense, but Brock posits that their happiness is rooted in their unwillingness to reflect on the assumptions they have bought into. The place they live in brings them happiness because it fulfills needs and doesn’t force anyone to question what they know to be true. MM’s whole modus operandi is to question assumptions, not as an end to itself but as a beginning. I never get the sense from “TLGS” that a tortured acceptance of the way things are is the only path, but acknowledging that things aren’t great is the first step to a better existence. Do you need a lot of what you got to survive?
There’s a difference between world-weariness and cynicism that often gets subsumed under the umbrella of negativity. Cynics are the bitter idealists of the world, the people who only believe in the better angels of our nature and block out the demons that live within all of us. They’re routinely disappointed when others don’t live up to their constructed image and, as a result, are suspect of anyone’s motives, genuine or otherwise. To put it another way, a cynic would never take a helping hand because he’s always going to believe that there’s a knife waiting in the other.
But someone who’s world-weary is arguably worse than a cynic. World-weariness stems from the same feelings as cynicism—disappointment in the face of unrealistic expectations—but instead of taking a position at all, world-weary people choose to tap out, close their voice, embrace indifference. They’re just as jaded, but because cynics inherently need to hold on to their idealism to maintain their position, there exists a glimmer of hope for something better, no matter how dim. Walking through the world completely disaffected by an environment you have a responsibility to engage with is a worse sin than simply being bitter, it’s a betrayal to our social obligations.
“Never Ending Math Equation” is about religion, but can be interpreted with different perspectives: 1) a world-weary acceptance of religion’s corroding influence on society; 2) a cynical diatribe against religious doctrine that requires us to serve an intangible master when there is clearly something better right here on Earth; or, in step with Modest Mouse’s pattern of ambiguity, 3) some combination of the two.
There are two figures in the song: “oh my God” and “the universe.” Frontman Isaac Brock speaks to God in the first and last third of the song, and both tone and content, coupled with the ferocity of music, are very telling. The first third is skepticism, questioning God’s power and authority. “I’m the same as I was when I was six years old,” Brock says. “And oh my God, I feel so damn old/I don’t really feel anything.” He asks God if the tiny light below that he sees on a plane really feel anything and how to move on if it’s not an external concern, but a plaguing internal one (“Where do you move when what you’re moving from/is yourself?”). In the last third, it’s a period of confusion, with the guitars clamoring against each other and Brock screaming his lyrics out. Brock conflates God with a cat (“Oh my God and oh my cat…”) and pleads that, despite telling his father what he needs, he really isn’t sure what he needs, more so after his father’s claim, “where we’re going, I’m dead.”
But the middle section throws the God discussion for a loop. Brock explains that the universe is infinite; it has existed well before us and will exist long after we pass. It “works on a math equation that never even ever really even ends in the end” and will ultimately “spiral out” anything us mortals imagine or create, like religion. The universe speaks to these creations, expressing its doubts about their longevity (“We ain’t sure where you stand/you ain’t machines and you ain’t land.”) and the contradictions in the logic, such as while plants and animals are “linked,” they also eat and betray each other. Despite any connection between humans, nature, God, etc., we still end up in the ground. A father and son go off into the future, but with the knowledge that the older generation won’t make it to any destination. We all have an end point, but we’re part of a larger tapestry that will last forever.
I know it sounds like I’m giving a straight interpretation of “Never Ending Math Equation,” but I don’t mean to. The song is filled with incongruities and the music and lyrics are hardly parallel to each other, especially when it kicks into high gear at the end, but it’s a testament to the band that interpretations aren’t privileged. My interpretation exists on the same plane as others.
Religion is a strange beast in MM’s lyrics. Brock has stated that he’s pretty much an atheist, but still “toys around with the whole Biblical thing.” He also believes that throwing all of our support behind science may not be the best thing either, saying that it “finds a way to fuck things up, and then [it] finds a way to fix it.” God and religion are so frequently referenced in his lyrics that it’s difficult to deny their influence on the music, but I see them more as symbols of contradiction, the difference between what they say they offer and what they provide. Religion is meant to comfort and satiate, to provide meaning in a meaningless environment, but it also demonizes and excludes, has stringent rules and expectations. Science might provide logical explanations and counterarguments, but they won’t erase prescribed beliefs. They will only provide an alternative.
But it’s clear we need to believe in something. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent masterpiece The Master, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character Lancaster Dodd quietly tells Freddie Quell (Joaquin Pheonix) that, “if you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” A strange mix of the suppressed optimism of a cynic and the beleaguered acceptance of the world-weary soul live in “Never Ending Math Equation,” but Brock also offers us another master to serve: the whole damn universe that we were born into, something that will continue to exist in some form, even if its in a dying mind. But to serve this master, there must also be an acceptance of our insignificance, of our quaint existence that reaches out to few and few alone. It’s only when we accept that we are only a part of something, and not the part of something, can we finally believe in a greater entity.
Modest Mouse - The Stars Are Projectors
I think it’s tempting to describe some of Modest Mouse’s lyrics as “bits of bong hit philosophy” and leave it at that, but it doesn’t do their more space-y material justice. I don’t know if MM is especially popular among stoners, but they certainly communicate stoned thoughts better than any other band (except possibly The Beta Band). If I can nail down any reason it’s that they don’t snort or giggle at the what-are-we-even-doing-here mentality that comes from being high, but takes it seriously enough to ask the question with a straight face, “What are we even doing here?”
“The Stars Are Projectors” is easily one of MM’s most naval-gazing, hazy songs in their catalogue even if it’s lyrically sparse. It concerns the notion that our world is an illusion and that the stars are simply “projectin’ our lives down to this planet Earth,” which is another song indicating that our lives are foundationally tenuous. Greed drives people to always want their lives both ways (“Everyone wants a double feature/They want to be their own damn teacher”), but it’s only one way: to accept the positive and negative ends of the spectrum (“It’s all about the moderate climates/You gotta be cold and be hot for sure/You wanna be blessed and be cursed for sure.”) The labels we assign ourselves mean inherently nothing as they’re “built on findin’ an easier way through.” I sort of see “TSAP” as a thematic companion to “Never Ending Math Equation” as they both center on the idea that the universe is a constant but our conception of it isn’t.
But “TSAP” succeeds primarily because of its ending instrumental section. During the recording of Moon & Antarctica, Isaac Brock’s jaw was broken by a group of ruffians and couldn’t sing for about two or three months. As a result,M&A largely relies on layers upon layers of instrumentation that provides a more moody, trance-inducing feel to the album (not to mention deftly putting that newfound major-label studio money to use). It was necessary for MM to downplay Brock’s voice on M&A, which, on paper, seems like deal breaker, but on the contrary, it actually enhanced MM’s sound and pushed the band in new, interesting directions. It emphasized that Brock, despite being the frontman and lyricist, is just one member of a complete, full-functioning entity that brings many ideas to the table. Plus because M&A uses Brock’s voice relatively sparingly, the songs where he is foregrounded literally shine (“3rd Planet,” “Gravity Rides Everything,” “I Came as a Rat,”).
The last half of “TSAP” puts the listener in a cosmic state as the guitar and drums swirl together in conjunction with a violin determinedly playing behind it. It varies from tensely cloistered and pleasantly expansive as the song eventually closes on acoustic picking. It illustrates the lyrics that came before and play out the very notion of stars as not simply celestial objects but as powerful entities that control our lives. However, the instrumentation is hardly isolating, as it doesn’t promise a foreboding future or underscore a lack of autonomy; all it does is demonstrate the vastness of our surroundings and how that can provide solace to those caught up in their own minds.
“Truckers Atlas,” the ten-minute track that anchors the second half of LCW, has arguably Modest Mouse’s best instrumental section, one that places you in a false sense of comfort before sneaking up on you and engulfing the song entirely. The last six minutes are deliberate in their willingness to get a little weird, what with the distanced, distorted echo of the “This truckers atlas road the way” lyric and all, but also because it foregrounds Jeremiah Green’s phenomenal drumming as it battles Brock’s snarly guitar. Green was 20 years old when LCW was recorded in 1997 and he already sounds like an inveterate pro. While Brock’s guitar work have created many of indie rock’s classics, but they would suffer if they lacked Green’s drumming. When bassist Eric Judy isn’t maintaining the tone and tempo of a song, Green takes over and defines the mood of a song oftentimes more than Brock. While “Truckers Atlas” stands as one of MM’s best road songs, it’s also a showcase for Green’s innate talent as a drummer.
“Truckers Atlas” incidentally illustrates how Brock can communicate lyrics’ implications and tensions all in his delivery as opposed to the written word. The song details a trucker who, guided by an atlas, drives around the country and his trials and tribulations of the up-and-down lifestyle of being on the road, except it doesn’t go into any details about said lifestyle instead limiting itself to listing the locations on his cross-country trip. But when the song slows down around the time when Brock croons “I don’t feel and I feel great/I sold my atlas by the freight stairs,” all is said through the guitar’s wavelike progression paralleled with Brock’s singing. I don’t know why “You knew you were all hot/Well, maybe you’ll go and blow a gasket” sounds as prophetic and meaningful as it does in the song, but for whatever reason, it sticks in my mind like a sore thumb. The actual words are simple and uncomplicated but the way they’re expressed raises “Truckers Atlas” to new heights.
Modest Mouse - Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset
Another standout track from This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset” has one of the all-time great Modest Mouse choruses that lasts a whole 23 seconds, but it shines only because of the song’s first three minutes and last two-and-a-half minutes, which serve to juxtapose imagery and create a bouncy, optimistic coda to a moment of dark self-reflection respectively. “TSAPS” is a lot more direct than I remember, but while I feel like the subject matter is well-worn territory, I’m hard-pressed to come up with another song this explicit about coming to terms with your own self-sabotage, self-pity, and self-loathing.
The recurring refrain of the narrator tying himself too tight in a noose opens “TSAPS,” but quickly transitions to the main verse (which incidentally has one of my favorite MM similes: “Looking kind of anxious in your cross-armed stance/Like a bad tempered prom queen at a homecoming dance”) that establishes a narrator who seemingly believes in nothing. He blames everything but himself for his boring life, but when he tries to figure out who he is, he “changes the whole damn plan.” The verse would be maudlin and cringeworthy in the wrong hands, but Brock makes it hit way too close to home. All the while a pleasant, lilting guitar line keeps the tempo relatively upbeat before diving into a post-chorus extended jam that has no purpose other than to shake you out of a funk.
But the chorus is like a diamond so small it can easily be missed. It isn’t repeated nor lingered on, but the song effectively pauses for a brief moment while Brock expresses a sentiment that is almost tailor-made for aimless 20-somethings that have opinions about everything: “Talking shit about a pretty sunset/Blanketing opinions that I’ll probably regret soon/Changed my mind so much I can’t even trust it/My mind changed me so much I can’t even trust myself.” I’ve said this previously, but one of the best qualities of Modest Mouse is their refusal to condescend to the self-involved angst that plague everyone, but, for some reason, is culturally snickered at. While the main verse is almost an indictment of the narrator’s negative tendencies, the chorus is more empathetic about the dread of feeling adrift. Who talks shit about pretty sunsets? People afraid to be a part of a group because it would compromise their individuality. But what if that individuality is built on halfhearted opinions that only serve to differentiate you from a group. Who are you really if you can’t trust yourself? “TSAPS” doesn’t answer any questions but the coda suggests something inherent to these bouts of existential crisis: relief comes from the knowledge that everyone experiences these struggles in one way or another.