Fourteen years, countless drunken concerts and six albums later, Isaac Brock and his band, Modest Mouse, are one of the few surviving pre-Strokes indie rock bands that still matter. On their new album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, much of what made them matter still thrives: Brock’s feral, coyote-on-fire voice, the rapier-sharp guitar and the Bukowski-esque lyrics. He was, and still is, the patron saint of failed young men—men who if they could just sober up and stop fighting, maybe they could be contenders.
But Brock has sobered up of late, and Modest Mouse is definitely in contention. Their previous album (2004’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News) having gone platinum, they now find themselves with videos on MTV and concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Still resolutely pessimistic (see album title), but with hints of happiness creeping in, Modest Mouse now sounds like a band finally starting to believe in itself.
Good news for people who love long album titles: Modest Mouse’s latest adds direction to the group’s burgeoning dance-rock sound.
The album is solid. It shouldn’t disappoint fans that discovered the band three years ago. Like Good News, it contains plenty of the bouncy funk-rock that has been ubiquitous since bands rediscovered Television. It also marks the debut of new band member and ex-Smith, Johnny Marr (whose presence isn’t even remotely discernable). There are some gems (notably “Parting the Sensory” and “Missed the Boat”), and Brock can’t write a dull song. But even so, something important is missing from the new Modest Mouse.
What’s gone is that unique territory Brock had previously made his own: the cold, windswept deserts and infinite highways that always remind me of my childhood and the country sky at night. The old Modest Mouse was the sound of homesickness and alienation, a giant cosmic arrow that said “You Are Here,” where “here” was precisely nowhere, and as such was the soundtrack of much of my 20s. The new Modest Mouse attempts to fill that emptiness with studied orchestration and dance beats. It’s not the same.
Buy the album, you might like it. And then listen to track 10, “Little Motel,” where, at 2:21, the guitar shatters like falling icicles, Brock singing with puffs of frozen breath, as the band enters what Joyce described as “the cold of interstellar space…the incipient intimations of proximate dawn.” In “Missed The Boat,” Brock perfectly describes the old Modest Mouse who “listened more to life’s end gong than the sound of life’s sweet bells” and “danced at [their] own wake.” In the next song he captures Modest Mouse version 2.0: “We’ve got everything down to a science, so I guess we know everything!”