“I don’t feel, and it feels great,” Modest Mouse frontman, Isaac Brock, shouts early in the 10-minute-long, instrumental-heavy “Trucker’s Atlas,” from 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West. This concise rallying cry points to the proud cynicism that characterizes much of the band’s music. Lonesome Crowded West was the band’s second full-length album, and the first to garner serious critical attention–Pitchfork gave it a rare perfect score–and provided Modest Mouse with its breakthrough.
Three years later, they released their major-label debut, The Moon & Antarctica, to further critical acclaim. With 2004’s Grammy-nominated Good News for People Who Love Bad News, and 2007’s well-received We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, the band solidified its reputation as one of the most original and consistently strong acts in mainstream alternative rock.
Modest Mouse was first conceived by Isaac Brock, who is the only member with an uninterrupted tenure in the band since its conception. (Founding drummer Jeremiah Green was replaced briefly in 2003 after suffering a nervous breakdown, but has otherwise also lasted the entire two decades; founding bassist Eric Judy left the band in 2011.) Brock grew up in the Pacific Northwest and for a period as a child was introduced into a Christian sect that asked him to speak in tongues; Modest Mouse, perhaps as a consequence, often touches on religious themes. On “3rd Planet,” possibly one of his most complex lyrical compositions, Brock sings, “the third planet is sure that it’s being watched by an eye in the sky that can’t be stopped… when you get to the promised land, you’re gonna shake that eye’s hand.”
But “3rd Planet,” like many of the band’s songs, also maintains Brock’s default defiant-asshole-persona: “I’ve got this thing that I consider my only art: fucking people over,” he declares in the opening verse. The complexity of Modest Mouse comes in its exploration of the subtleties of that persona, as in the mournful “Broke,” in which Brock declares, almost penitently, “Sometimes I’m so full of shit it should be a crime.” And on the same album (Good News for People Who Love Bad News), in which he screams in “Bury Me With It,” “Sure as planets come, I know that they end, and if I’m here when that happens, will you promise me this, my friend? Please, bury me with it! I don’t need none of that Mad Max bullshit,” he also inquires of the eponymous subject of “Bukowski,” “Who would want to be such an asshole?”
The lyrics can, at times, get even darker. “The Good Times are Killing Me,” despite the catchy falsetto of the titular refrain, is a depressing meditation on the after-effects of past drug abuse. The haunting “Medication” describes, musically and lyrically, a person suffering through bipolar disorder. And “Ocean Breathes Salty,” one of the group’s bigger hits, mourns the death of an anonymous acquaintance with the dubious wish, “For your sake, I hope heaven and hell are really there–but I wouldn’t hold my breath,” before bluntly asking, “You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death?”
Fortunately, Modest Mouse also knows how to have fun. There is, of course, the unusually optimistic “Float On,” by far the band’s most successful single, which The New York Times called “the greatest song David Byrne [of The Talking Heads] never yelped.” The mood of “Float On” is echoed in some of Modest Mouse’s deeper cuts: “All Nite Diner,” for instance, is kind of an awful song, but somehow generates endless repeat listens with its hypnotically enthusiastic solicitation, “Have I told ya, have I told ya? Have I told ya, have I told ya? We could really get it on, we could really get it on!” That kind of attitude, probably, will be most welcome at Spring Weekend.
Modest Mouse’s appearance at Brown comes in the midst of an international tour in support of Strangers to Ourselves, the band’s new album and first in six years (eight, if you don’t count 2009’s outtakes collection No One’s First, And You’re Next). Strangers is probably not quite as strong of an album top to bottom as the band’s three major releases from last decade, but it is at its worst inoffensive and at times quite good. “Of Course We Know,” which Modest Mouse seems to be playing at pretty much every concert on this tour, has a kind of pleasantly slow and melancholy feel to go along with its catchy, whiny “Ahhh-ahhh-ah” refrain. “Shit in Your Cut” is a nice return to the more aggressive Modest Mouse of yore; and the short, sweet “Ansel,” about a vague family tragedy, is good enough to have a place on any of the band’s albums. Still, Strangers’ lead single, “Lampshades on Fire,” is so familiar, it’s boring, and there are more of these less inspired tracks on this albums than of perhaps any other.
One strength of Modest Mouse, however, is the near-endless depth of their catalog–in addition to the six studio albums, there are a number of impressively strong oddity and outtake collections (among these is perhaps my favorite of any Modest Mouse release, 2000’s Building Nothing out of Something). The band has embraced this advantage in their live shows of recent years, according to Consequence of Sound: “Setlists [have begun] resembling something of an ideal, hitting on all periods of the band, not relying on the easiest or most well-known songs to anchor the sets. This trend, if it continues at Spring Weekend, bodes well for concertgoers. Yes, you’ll get “Float On”–and hopefully great, slightly lesser hits like “Missed the Boat” and “The World At Large“–but there should be something fresh to enjoy, too.