It’s still somewhat of a shock to know that Modest Mouse became a mainstream success in 2004 with the release of Good News For People Who Love Bad News. It’s a shock because only two albums previous Modest Mouse were a backwater, swamp-rock band with songs like ‘Dramamine’, ‘Trailer Trash’ and ‘Jesus Christ Was An Only Child’ with more of a knack for loose, intense playing and Isaac Brock’s hardcore-esque screams and yelping punctuating the songs which could range from three-minute, soft acoustic tracks like ‘Bankrupt On Selling’ or six-minute moody epics like ‘Cowboy Dan’. So the transition from cult favourites to chart toppers is a strange occurrence, but one that shows Brock’s ear for a poppy melody and turning it inside out into a furious tempo-changing opener like ‘Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine’. It’s best to return to the ‘cult’ favourite to discover the real beginning of Modest Mouse’s success, unlike their debut album, which had some good moments but was spotty at best. The Lonesome Crowded West is an album unlike any other in Modest Mouse’s discography as they succeeded on a concept album where they would later fail.
The basic concept of The Lonesome Crowded West is, in Brock’s words, ‘the paving of the west’. It tracks the big box malls that dumped themselves upon the edges of small towns, where Brock and the rest of Modest Mouse lived, and then proceeded to abandon the towns, something that Brock had predicted on ‘Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine’ with ‘the malls are soon-to-be ghosttowns’. ‘Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine’ itself it something of a centrepiece at the beginning of the record, which is true to the off-kilter aspect of Modest Mouse. It begins with a traditional punky Modest Mouse song and Brock yelling out ‘From the top of the ocean to the bottom of the sky / Well, I get claustrophobic’. The ‘claustrophobia’ is the impending closing in of the strip malls upon the towns, but can easily be translated as one of Brock’s vague metaphors for mental illness that pops up every now and again. However, the song shortly dives into a slow, grinding moment with lyrics like ‘go to the grocery store and buy some new friends’. The ‘man with teeth like god’s shoeshine’ is one of Brock’s personifications of something dark and foreboding, in this case being America or American capitalism. If the idea of a grinning man offering you luxury and wealth doesn’t frighten you, then The Lonesome Crowded West hasn’t worked as a warning against the problems of America.
‘Trailer Trash’ and ‘Cowboy Dan’ are some of the best songs The Lonesome Crowded West has to offer. Both begin slowly and build up to monumental setpieces and contain some of Brock’s most personal and biting lyrics. ‘Trailer Trash’ can be seen somewhat as autobiographical with lyrics like ‘Short love with a long divorce / and a couple of kids of course / they don’t mean anything’ and ‘I can’t do anything’. The song is instrumentally bare, with the chorus so skeletal that you get the impression Brock’s laying everything out on the table. ‘Cowboy Dan’, on the other hand, has allusions to faith with lyrics such as ‘He drove to the desert, fires his rifle in the sky / says ‘God if I have to die you will have to die’ which is an incredible line just on its own. The song is backed by a winding guitar line that works best when it slowly fades in post-chorus. Modest Mouse can write slow, acoustic songs and they can write punky two minute songs, but they work best when they have 5+ minutes to jam out a lot of their songs.
In the case of ‘Truckers Atlas’, it’s actually about eleven minutes. It’s a tale of travelling, presumably whilst touring. A lot of Brock’s humour makes its way into the song, such as in ‘I’m going up to Alaska / I’m going to get off scot-fucking-free’. Again, the allusions to mental health come back with ‘Maybe you’ll go and blow a gasket’. The majority of the song is a jam, with the traditional Modest Mouse guitar playing, incorporating a lot of what sounds like half-assed playing and bending notes, but it is the sound of the band. The sound changes in the last two songs, which are acoustic tracks. ‘Bankrupt On Selling’ is the better of the two, casting shadows on religion again with lyrics like ‘All the apostles they’re sitting in swings / saying ‘I’d sell off my saviour for a set of new rings’ with a set of guitar chords eerily reminiscent of Radiohead’s ‘True Love Waits’.
Considering Modest Mouse’s latest efforts to recapture their success, The Lonesome Crowded West is a reminder of the pinnacle of their creativity. The entire concept of malls destroying America is an incredible idea just by itself, but the religious and personal undertones lead to a foreboding paranoia and doubt that Modest Mouse never captured again. The instrumentation is so loose that it sounds as if the band barely know what they’re playing but make it sound good nonetheless. With songs like ‘Shit Luck’, does their contribution to music really need questioning?