Monday, February 25, 2008

MODEST MOUSE — WE WERE DEAD BEFORE THE SHIP EVEN SANK

MODEST MOUSE — WE WERE DEAD BEFORE THE SHIP EVEN SANK

So, it was 1999, and I was listening to the William Patterson University radio station when I heard a song that blew my head. I was getting interested in new music again, and here was something ready to make me feel like a freshman in college when you're suddenly discovering all sorts of new shit you never thought you'd like. I'm pretty sure the song was "Never Ending Math Equation," but I know for certain that the band was Modest Mouse. You have to understand that the back end of the nineties seemed like a barren wasteland, musically. Especially in rock music. Especially if you didn't have your nose in every possible hole, looking for the quality.

So, "Neverending Math Equation" was that night at a party and you get a name and a number, but the name smudges a bit and you're not even sure if the number was for business or for business and should you call? but it really seemed like you were hitting things off but it could've been a one-sided thing. But you call anyway and Building Nothing Out of Something was that remarkable first date, complete with a kiss and oh-my-god you will remember vague details of that night for a long time. And then I heard The Lonesome Crowded West and it was like the first three times you have sex together, that first time that's great because you're new to each other, the second time where you try to figure out how to apply things you know to reactions you're learning and the third time when you both drank a little more wine than you should've and things go to the wild and crazy place of sex you'll never forget but will try to recreate each night together until you can't stand each other.

And, yeah, there's going to be great sex after that. Maybe some of it will technically be even better (The Moon and Antarctica) and some of it might be a little freakier, with paused glances asking if you're sure about this new direction (Good News for People Who Love Bad News), but none of it truly recaptures those first perfect moments.

And that's where long-time fans (many, longer than me) find themselves. Because we still think that first magic is something we can recreate together, and sometimes we lose sight of the fact that the new times are worth appreciating as well. So, complain all you want that the Mouse doesn't kiss you the same way, but try not to make a scene because Johnny Marr is joining us and he heard we knew how to have a good time.

And that's what this album is. It's a good time. There's some brighter guitar on top of the angular and disjointed guitar. Maybe some keyboards over the propulsive drums. Harmonies over the wordplay. Horns over the drumrolls leading into the breakdowns.

And it's a lot weirder than their old music too. Modest Mouse has always been a little weird, but listen to "Dashboard" and all the signs that signal its pop-song qualities and really think about them for a second. It doesn't REALLY sound like a radio-friendly song at all. It's pop, but none of those sounds sound like the radio.

And they jump right into the high-energy, laughing head-first. They sound like they're having a great time making "Florida." And there's a part of me that wants to dismiss it as a silly song, but it's hard not to feel some of that infectious, shit-eating grin you know Isaac Brock must've been wearing when the manic structure of that song was arrived at.

And they still know how to build tension and quirky narrative until it all explodes into a double-time climax. Parting of the Sensory isn't Cowboy Dan/Doin' the Cockroach part 2, but it's also a little more unpredictable. It's playing around, but it's so angry, like breaking the fingers of lab mice for failing at memory tasks. And then it breaks into the actual sounds of the devil dancing over your grave.

And throughout, there are these weird-ass sounds that never overwhelm the songs, but hide low in the mix until the main elements stop briefly and you realize you'd been listening to them all along. It's all playful. Every element.

You know how the genious of The Smiths was the merging of disturbing or unpleasant thoughts with perfect pop songs? Not too surprisingly, Modest Mouse is doing something similar here. The words are cutting, or angry or just filled with bile or regret, but the music is bouncing all over the damn place. "We Missed the Boat" sounds almost embarrassingly joyful. Listen to the lilting chimes and delicate singing in "March into the Sea" that follows "treat me like disease" or "bang your head like a gong cause it's filled with all wrong." "We've Got Everything" is the Cars lamenting success, how they got there and the futility of trying all with about five New-Wave choruses all vying for the most ironic declaration.

"Fly Trapped in a Jar" is two songs thrown together in a way that you rarely ever hear. The two songs are linked thematically (in the lyrics), but share little stylistically or narratively. That is, until the second song builds, in traditional Modest Mouse fashion, into a song that seamlessly turns into the first song. It's probably the single most remarkable moment on the album, and it confused me the first few times I listened to it. And this doesn't even take into account the fly sound that begins the track, or the sparsely accompanied intro that precedes the first chorus of the first song. Or the distant, ironic laughter that pops up out of nowhere. Or the extra drums and synths that are hidden throughout.

And adding to the confusion is the fact that "Education" sounds like it's as much a part of the same song. I didn't know where I was anymore on my earliest plays. And things maintain this cruel playfullness throughout, culminating in the positively epic "Spitting Venom" with it's swirling, building, post-rock verses and super-catchy, yet anti-climatic title chorus (not to be confused with the other choruses).

Then the whole thing ends with "Invisible" that sounds as much like a statement of purpose for the new Modest Mouse as much as it does some ultimate culmination of the album and all Modest Mouse up to this point. It's like every callback, real or imagined, in some brand new medley.

And it really is a pretty great album. A fun album. A dark album. It's not my first Modest Mouse album. Or second. Or even my NINTH. But it's probably SOMEbody's. And, if so, it's a pretty awesome start, because it's a great album. It's taken me nearly a year to truly appreciate it, but I like your new haircut and the random grey hairs and the new toys and I even kinda like laughing while we do it now.

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