On Modest Mouse’s best album, The Lonesome Crowded West, Isaac Brock’s gasoline-drenched and sun-scorched characters are the definitive musical representations of North American malaise and creeping dread as the 20th century marches inexorably to its conclusion; Y2K and beyond. God knows what awaits the next century (or, as Brock suggests, he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care).
In Brock’s nightmarish visions – or are they premonitions? – everything has come all at once for tumbleweed towns where nothing happens. The malls are the soon-to-be ghost towns. (“Well aren’t you feeling really dirty/ Sittting in your car with nothing/ Waiting to bleed on the big streets/ That bleed out on the highways and/ Off to the other cities built to store and sell”) The searing heat has made the horizon go all blurry, the hot tarmac oscillating and melting into cloudless skies. People are stranded in the middle of the desert – out of gas, car and road. Black smoke spews from sizzling bonnets.
In this way, The Lonesome Crowded West plays out along much the same aural and stylistic lines as the great film There Will Be Blood. That movie has been called “a biblical parable about America’s failure to square religion and greed”. But a decade before Daniel Plainview drank your milkshake, Isaac Brock, Eric Judy and Jeremiah Green were providing the same blood gulch rumination on an American Life of squalor and quiet depression. In themselves, the songs are densely instrumental but ramshackle. If you wanted to package it, you could probably call it post-grunge or some shit like that. The everyday-ness of every track only lends to a strange, cathartic feeling somewhere between despair, dread, hope and resigned nonchalance.
Album opener Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine is a gargantuan, behemoth, monstrous, epic. As with many good album openers, it bottles the (oily, fried) essence of what is to come – equal parts frantic, angry and heartbreaking. Its closest relative chronicles the life and times of Cowboy Dan, the drunk and apoplectic heathen who impotently fires his rifle at God for causing his liver to fail. “I didn’t move to the city, the city moved to me,” Cowboy Dan mourns at the sight of the gentrification of his god forsaken swamp. (“…And I want out desperately”). It’s a full blown mental breakdown put to record, and it is breathtaking. (“Every time you think you’re walking you’re just moving the ground. Every time you think you’re talking you’re just moving your mouth.”) Just as the earth falls away beneath the track, Brock starts barking about how he can’t get his engine to turn over, and wiry, frayed guitars spiral the song into oblivion.
The more I listened to this album, the clearer it became to me that it is Brock’s personal paean to the life he left behind as his band became more renowned. The Lonesome Crowded West is angry at the world, but its protagonists are hopelessly directionless in their anger. I saw an article earlier in the week about how sad, crushing music is more likely to be enjoyed by people who are more empathetic. Sounds like a lot of bollocks to me, but what makes this thing a classic is that Brock so deftly narrates the experiences of the victims of 20th century society warts-and-all. It’s a view not-oft explored by songwriters, and Brock’s agile and thoughtful take on poverty and sheer idiocy alone sets him apart from his peers. Take Doin’ the Cockroach for example, which takes the perspective of uneducated but untrusting white trash: “I was in heaven/ I was in hell/ Believe in neither/ But fear them as well/ This one’s a doctor/ This one’s a lawyer/ This one’s a cash fiend/ taking your money!”
That theme is expanded on in Trailer Trash. Apparently about Brock’s impoverished upbringing, is arguably the most devastating song on the album and maybe the band’s entire back catalogue. Up this point, Modest Mouse had been making good albums with a few standout tracks. Trailer Trash, a relatively simple (dare I say, pop) song built around standard chords. But it is, without a shadow of exaggeration, fucking transcendental. After the grandiosity of songs like Teeth, Cowboy Dan and Doin’ the Cockroach, Trailer Trash is the moment where the band foreshadowed the kind of bittersweet, memory-burning single that they’ve built the rest of their career on.
Because Modest Mouse have made a lot of music. Some of it (I’m thinking The Moon & Antarctica) might even be ‘as good’ as this album. But, because it addresses so little and so much at the same time, The Lonesome Crowded West is unmatched. Sure, it ultimately captured a microcosm of bleak, barren, pre-millenium USA. But as much as it is microcosmic, it’s also cosmic; a succinct a summary of nihilism and sheer, dumb hope in coexistence. As will become clear in the coming months in the presidential election, religious uncertainty is heading to an abrupt crossroads in the malcontent of middle and lower America. (Note this uncomfortably prescient pearler on Bankrupt on Selling: “I’ll go to college and I’ll learn some big words/ And I’ll talk real loud, god damn right I’ll be heard”) In that way, there is a case to say that this is much more than a study of demography but a warning of an impending, cataclysmic endgame as foreign culture encroaches the domain of the uneducated and afraid.
You get the Brock is feeling that he’s still kinda smug that this, his greatest lyrical achievement at least, hasn’t been uncovered by the masses like his band’s later albums have been. Take the album closer Styrofoam Boots: a folky jaunt that serves almost as a piss-take. He’s ruminated on this existential epiphany; he’s sure that God doesn’t exist; and he probably never did pass high school, and he’s just drinking away the part of the day that he can’t sleep away. But hey, still, “it’s all nice on ice, all right”. He’s still just a hick cracking open cold ones in a trailer park with his hick friends. Maybe – probably – those people are more enlightened than any of us. Because after all; God takes care of himself, and you of you.