In Defense Of is a feature in which I come to the unsolicited rescue of a piece of entertainment that I happen to enjoy quite a bit despite some sort of fan or critical backlash against it. I’m a real-life Batman.
Modest Mouse slugged out a decade of scrappy, deranged music before “Float On” happened. The first portion of that decade found the band testing its own limits and wading into deeper and deeper waters; the rest of it was devoted to making startling indie classics like This is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About and personal favorite Lonesome Crowded West. Then there was the stunning The Moon and Antarctica, a decidedly toned-down affair every bit as monumental despite a new approach. For those invested in Isaac Brock and company, commercial success seemed both impossible and like some sort of street-cred condemnation.
Once “Float On” took over American airwaves seemingly at random, everything changed. Suddenly anyone with a pulse was aware of Modest Mouse’s existence, and perhaps even more offensively they might have mistakenly believed themselves to have known who the band were. As any casual music fan in 2003 can surely attest to, they didn’t. Good News for People Who Love Bad News was the album housing the band’s big single, and it was filled to the brim with the sort of sheer weirdness more ardent fans had been living with for a long while. When 2007 saw the release of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, plenty of petulant hipsters tossed it aside on the basis of shinier production and Mouse’s newfound ubiquity. That was a terrible decision.
I get that it was weird to hear Modest Mouse sound as if they’d wandered into an honest-to-God studio with an honest-to-God desire to make songs feel like they were recorded on equipment not found at a garage sale. I get that “Fire It Up” and “Florida” are annoying. I get that teaming up with James Mercer for anything between 2003 and 2007 was tantamount to admitting you really wanted some cash for your efforts. But underneath the lacquer is that same fucking band, the one willing to set fire to anything in its path. You’ll still hear the insistent note-bending, the stray blasts of noise, and the madman’s voice as the cherry on top.
An objective listen to We Were Dead reveals the songwriting chops were still there for Brock, still just 32 at the time. The album opens with a creaking ship and the wild-eyed Brock taking over as he’d never done before, unleashing his manic vocals on the stomping “March Into the Sea.” It’s a hell of a song, and one that primes the listener for all of the different angles Modest Mouse goes throughout the life of the record. Even the next track, the would-be followup to the success of “Float On” titled “Dashboard,” is a cocaine-addled version of what the band thought a radio single should be. It’s catchy, gaudy, and unnerving at the same time; it’s proof that like most of the best, Modest Mouse has no actual idea how to intentionally make a song geared toward mass appeal.
“Parting of the Sensory” is pleasant enough as the somber, meditative number it begins as, but then Brock turns things on their head. A sinister tone begins to invade, and then all hell breaks loose as the band turns what could have been such a simple exercise in mood into a dance-worthy jamboree that sounds like it was devised by a team of demons. It’s quite an achievement. For that matter, so is the eight-and-a-half minute “Spitting Venom,” one of the best songs of the band’s career. It’s a pleasant acoustic diversion that veers sideways into controlled aggression and then into a beautifully-crafted ending with an extremely effective trumpet lead. These aren’t songs written by a band on its last legs, and they aren’t songs written by a band phoning it in.
As diverse and intriguing as We Were Dead is musically, perhaps the weirdest and most effective instrument on the album is Brock’s voice. Those familiar with Modest Mouse know he wears several different hats as a vocalist. He’ll whisper, he’ll quiver, he’ll play things straight, he’ll get playful, and he’ll bark like a rabid dog. Over the course of this album, every facet of Isaac Brock’s versatile instrument is on display at one point or another. Hell, sometimes he even unleashes a couple of them at the same time through some truly inspired harmony parts. More than ever, he sounds like a man possessed. A wounded artist with something to prove. A genius.
We Were Dead isn’t the crowning achievement of Modest Mouse’s career, but it isn’t exactly as far off as many might have you believe. You can pan the pristine production all you want–maybe it just isn’t your thing. What you can’t do, however, is cry “sell out!” and claim that Modest Mouse were effectively done the second someone other than your indie friends wanted to hear them. I’m glad “Float On” took off the way it did. In my view, any band I love deserves all the money and fame it can get; soak up the fleeting mainstream relevance for as long as you can and set yourself up financially as best you can. Maybe reaching that summit does creative damage to some artists, but it sure didn’t scratch the bulletproof idiosyncrasy of Modest Mouse.