On "Spitting Venom," perhaps the awesomest track on Modest Mouse's latest, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, Isaac Brock sings, "We've got a knack for fucked-up history." You can say that again, Isaac.
Sometime during 2002, I found myself watching mud drip down white plaster walls—mind-fucked on booze and hallucinogens—while fires burned throughout the living room (seriously). An old roomate had thought it would be a good idea to blast Modest Mouse's "Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset" while simulateously lighting ashtrays full of fingernail-polish remover. The night ended with shards of glass and soggy cigarette butts littering the linoleum (the ashtrays got too hot and shattered). But it was a good idea—even with the bloody feet that ensued. It was a good idea because no band embodies the fucked up and beautiful like Modest Mouse. On We Were Dead, that hasn't changed.
Surely some who've heard the album's faintly disco-y single, "Dashboard," have already decided that MM has jumped ship for remix-heavy shores. But "Dashboard" delivers a lot of what's always been great about Brock: cynicism and hope wrapped in funky-as-hell guitars and automotive imagery. "Oh, the dashboard melted/ But we still have the radio," the Portland resident spouts, "Well, the windshield's broken/ But I love the fresh air, you know."
True, "Dashboard" isn't the album's strongest track (singles rarely are). But it's doubtful you'll care after the staccato accordion and maniacal laughter of gypsified opener "March Into the Sea." A few tracks later, on "Florida," the constant, ringing guitar of new member Johnny Marr (of the Smiths) appears. Marr's contributions are most apparent during the dreamy chorus of "Missed the Boat"—on which Brock loftily sings (with the Shins' James Mercer) "Oh, and we carried it all so well." But even "Missed the Boat" features a whammy-bent electric guitar that could have been ripped right from This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About.
We Were Dead finds Brock sometimes employing his frog-in-the-throat vocal style, but he also slips into a David Byrne-ish queak on "Fly Trapped In a Jar." Themes of being stuck recur throughout, and during the otherworldy expanses and softly squealing guitar of "Little Motel," that feeling is driven home by the goosebump-eliciting words: "We had made a wish that we would be missed/ If one or another just did not exist."
Like a much more imposing, manic version of Dustin Hoffman's character in I Heart Huckabees, Brock has always taken on the existential. And We Were Dead doesn't fail to deliver on the promise of Modest Mouse: All the hard shit and failed plans and unanswerable questions are there, but it's laced with an effervescent hope. There is a wicked smile behind all of it, but it's one you can trust. From the noise-tinged freak-out of "Steam Engenius" to the straight-up disco of "Education" to every frantic, funky guitar lead ("We've Got Everything") or jumpy-yet-driving folk song ("Spitting Venom"), this ship has a captain, and most of us have known him for a long time.
Folks are afraid that Modest Mouse has changed. Well, it's been more than 10 years since This Is a Long Drive. I'm guessing Brock's life isn't exactly the same (he's got a member of the Smiths in his band, for crissakes). I'm guessing yours isn't either. Through all the fucked up and joyous turns, life's only constant is change—and I couldn't be happier to let Modest Mouse provide the soundtrack for the whole damn thing.