Modest Mouse evoked the terror of a rapidly changing world on their 1997 magnum opus, reviews Harry Hetherington
November 2017 marked twenty years since The Lonesome Crowded West’s release, the best album in an extremely good year for guitar music, and for ‘indie rock’, whose capacity for relevance has withered and died in the new millennium. This is not a genre I would profess to paying too much notice anymore, but I remember this album clearly as one of the first I loved that I’d also discovered for myself, and was delighted to find that some other people I spoke to liked it as well. Not that it is a particularly ‘underground’ record; North-Western groups like Modest Mouse, as natives of the area that had harboured the grunge phenomenon of the early 90s, stepped in to fill the void after its demise. After This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About (1996), they released this album the next year and later had huge commercial success with Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004), even adding Johnny Marr to their line-up for a few years. This, though, remains their most thrilling effort.
The album’s central theme is vocalist Isaac Brock’s unvarnished view of his immediate surroundings; his exasperation is clear, as he sees the small-town landscape in which he grew up get, in his words, ‘mall-fucked’. As the area exported grunge to a worldwide audience, so the global ‘tech community’ and hyper-consumerism came to the Pacific coast. The opener ‘Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine’ encapsulates this idea best, with Brock apathetically singing the praises of the ‘man’ with the Hollywood smile who ‘sparkles, shimmers, shines’ on every new, looming billboard. This more ponderous chorus is intercut with furious, lo-fi drumming and crashing guitars in the rest of the song, but the mockingly enthusiastic line, ‘The malls are the soon-to-be ghost towns’, resonates the most. Lines like these challenge the cultural associations a British listener might have with the North-west: the plaid, Twin Peaks logging town setting is steamrollered by America’s post-industrial age, bringing with it all the plastic, hellish strip malls and pop-up-close-down stores which threaten our most romantic notions of the 90s. What is borne out of this terrifying frontier when companies decide to ‘up sticks’, leaving behind only a hollow vestige of the idea of a ‘community’?
‘Heart Cooks Brain’ is strange and thoughtful. The sad guitars and tired drums labour along accordingly and evoke the oft-monotonous nature of travelling across vast highways, an idea taken further in songs like ‘Out of Gas’ and ‘Trucker’s Atlas’. Brock claims ‘My brain’s the cliff, and my heart’s the bitter buffalo’, tinged by his unmistakable lisped twang which firmly places the lyrics in an obsolete American age. His voice has the potential for visceral outburst, too, as on ‘Convenient Parking’ and ‘Closing Time’, where his lyrics in the more frantic sections of the songs merge almost into one, losing themselves in the wall of noise. The latter song starts with bouncing guitars, and builds up to a brilliant crescendo where Jeremiah Green’s drums are whacked to within an inch of being operational, but Brock’s voice in the chorus betrays a desperation: ‘We are so caught up with things / We should pull each other’s triggers’. His repeated lament (‘It’s closing time’) winds down the song, his voice complimenting beautifully with temporary vocalist Nicole Johnson’s.
Themes of a country old and new continue on ‘Jesus Christ was an Only Child’, where banjos and fiddles are employed underneath Brock’s teasing advice to a God incredulous at the lawless human race: ‘Should have insured that planet / Before it crashed’. Similarly, ‘Cowboy Dan’ tells the tale of the badly-behaved titular character eager to fight with his Creator, whose only gift is an inevitable death. Again, heavy, sad interludes and minor chord-heavy riffs underpin the more panicked song sections. Again, the backdrops behind the songs are pure, expansive Badlands. The very darkest corners of the album conjure the nightmarish seclusion of the Branch Davidians or the Weaver family, and grainy, fog-covered ridges a million miles from any Washington.
Make no mistake, however: Modest Mouse can do wry humour, as well. ‘Doin’ the Cockroach’ shows them at their sharpest, a song akin to the inner monologue of a tired commuter who’s forgotten their headphones. Our character observes the scene with annoyance: ‘This one’s a doctor / This one’s a lawyer / This one’s a cash thief […] He was a talker / Talking about TV / Please shut up!’ It is the closest thing to a ‘dance’ track on the album, with kick beats and grooves almost urging this ‘cockroach’ dance to become the bizarre new trend. In a similar vein, ‘Shit Luck’ is a short, jolting track full of wailing chords and proclaimed vignettes (‘This boat is obviously sinking!’).
‘Trucker’s Atlas’ is the album’s highlight. Telling a veiled account of interstate drug running, the song is relentlessly kept ticking over by Green’s rolling-tom drum pattern in the first half of the song. It also places Brock’s voice on fullest display, descending from brashness at his own exploits, to this, more primal offering: ‘I don’t feel and it feels great / I sold my atlas by the freight stairs / I do lines and I crossed roads / I crossed the lines of all the great state roads.’ His raw delivery gives a sense of detachment and passion all at once. The song distills one of the more prominent themes on the record of skirting round the edges of the country, continuing for almost five minutes more than may be comfortable for listeners. The Lonesome Crowded West isn’t afraid to characterise the boundlessness of America and of travel through its song lengths, though the lack of obvious pay-offs actually works. Twenty years on, it remains familiar yet alien.