I really like Modest Mouse. So this may be a strange follow up statement: it was really difficult to listen through the band’s discography. Let me clarify: it was a good, but challenging, experience. That’s because, for a few reasons, I feel there’s a lot of psychic drama going on behind the indie darling’s music, a maelstrom of darkness stemming from frontman Isaac Brock’s lyrics and voice and the band’s unique and eerie sound as a whole. That sound has been tempered by pop instincts in recent years, as often happens to bands that find success and time hit them. Initially, though, Modest Mouse made a name for themselves in an alt rock scene in the mid-1990s that was quickly diversifying from the more specific definition of alt rock from the 1980s. Since then, many members have come and gone from the band, always led by Brock. Formed in 1992, Modest Mouse have released eight albums in the 25 years since their debut record in 1996, releases that have led up to THE GOLDEN CASKET, the impetus for this piece that was released on June 25, 2021. That eight is one number higher than what is often regarded as the “canonical seven,” which I’ll explain in short order. In order to get a full feeling of the Modest Mouse discography, I also listened to the EPs BLUE CADET-3, DO YOU CONNECT? (1994), INTERSTATE 8 (1996), THE FRUIT THAT ATE ITSELF (1997), NIGHT ON THE SUN (1999), EVERYWHERE AND HIS NASTY PARLOUR TRICKS (2001), and NO ONE’S FIRST AND YOU’RE NEXT (2009), as well as the compilation album of B-sides and such, BUILDING NOTHING OUT OF SOMETHING (2000). For the sake of keeping things “tight” to a ranking of the main Modest Mouse releases, they’re not included in the list below. They’re worthy listens, however, and as I intended, they give a fuller picture of the band’s, I should mention, great discography.
#8 — SAD SAPPY SUCKER (2001)
Favorite track: “Four Fingered Fisherman”
Right away I can explain my calculation of eight main Modest Mouse albums, as opposed to the conventional seven: it’s based on SAD SAPPY SUCKER. Often cited as a compilation album of sorts and released in 2001, the record is actually, by my estimation, the band’s fourth, although it was intended to be their first. Modest Mouse’s success through the late ’90s and early 2000s yielded SAD SAPPY SUCKER’s release from the vault, with additional, brief tracks from Brock’s voice machine that he made for a “dial a song” service. In any event, the songs on the album were recorded six or seven years before their official release, making them sound out-of-touch from the place Modest Mouse had reached by this time, or even out-of-touch with the work produced for their first album in 1996. SAD SAPPY SUCKER is certainly an uneven piece, with relatively polished and good tracks like “Four Fingered Fisherman” coming in between raw, almost unfinished songs that grate and then quickly disappear. I mean, it might have to be said, maybe there was a reason why SAD SAPPY SUCKER ultimately wasn’t Modest Mouse’s official debut. Nevertheless, even as the band’s worst album, it’s an intriguing work with some gems to be found, like my aforementioned favorite track, and an overlooked piece of Modest Mouse’s history besides.
#7 — STRANGERS TO OURSELVES (2015)
Favorite track: “Lampshades on Fire”
As ever, and especially with bands that started out with a lot of indie cred, a group like Modest Mouse has an era that original and “hardcore” fans consider a sellout point. That came maybe a decade or so before STRANGERS TO OURSELVES, but this album does represent a baroque continuation of the more mainstream sound originated on GOOD NEWS FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE BAD NEWS and WE WERE DEAD BEFORE THE SHIP EVEN SANK. The difference, however, is that STRANGERS TO OURSELVES isn’t great. It’s not so much because of that shift in Modest Mouse’s sound as it is because the tight hooks of the previous albums had shifted into a looser, more shallow instance of the same realm. STRANGERS TO OURSELVES has a few tracks that remind me of the chaotic, dark fun of older Modest Mouse releases, best illustrated by “Lampshades on Fire,” but otherwise it mostly settles into a malaise of Modest Mouse “tropes.” And that’s disappointing, because it came after the biggest gap between the band’s albums to date, a full eight years after WE WERE DEAD BEFORE THE SHIP EVEN SANK. It should be said, however, for all its quality relative to other Modest Mouse albums, STRANGERS TO OURSELVES was still more interesting than much of what was being released in rock music at the time, and it’s still a good listen. It’s just not up to par with almost all of the rest of what Modest Mouse has done. Fun fact: the cover is apparently an aerial photograph of an RV park in Mesa, Arizona, a city I lived in for a few years. Weird choice, weird town.
#6 — THE GOLDEN CASKET (2021)
Favorite track: “Japanese Trees”
THE GOLDEN CASKET is Modest Mouse’s most recent release at the time of this writing, and it continues some of the malaise present on STRANGERS TO OURSELVES. However, this album has a stronger identity than its predecessor thanks to a psychedelic focus, although I think much of Modest Mouse’s work already resided in a surreal otherworld. But songs like “Fuck Your Acid Trip” and the absolutely terrible cover art reminiscent of late ’90s and early 2000s David Bowie records (my gold standard for terrible cover art containing albums from great artists) drive the theme home. THE GOLDEN CASKET also continues a softer, mostly more accessible sound, but as I’ve illustrated time and again with these pieces, that doesn’t always clash with my taste. Often, it is my taste. But with a band like Modest Mouse, it can feel a bit shallow in relation to previous work, and while I wouldn’t say THE GOLDEN CASKET isn’t good, it’s not great either. It’s redeemed somewhat by a stronger presence of that “psychic drama” I’ve mentioned, exemplified by the pounding “Fuck Your Acid Trip” and the dreamier “Japanese Trees.” THE GOLDEN CASKET is a better rock release than most right now, but another low-tier Modest Mouse album in the wake of their great records.
#5 — THIS IS A LONG DRIVE FOR SOMEONE WITH NOTHING TO THINK ABOUT (1996)
Favorite track: “Dramamine”
But here we already get to the Modest Mouse records that I would qualify as “great.” And that all started with the band’s debut, THIS IS A LONG DRIVE FOR SOMEONE WITH NOTHING TO THINK ABOUT, which also set the precedent for Modest Mouse’s funny, long album titles. Brock’s lyrics, the plaintive sound of his voice, and the backing instrumentals (especially the guitar) have often recalled the haunting desolation of the American Midwest; the “lonesome crowded west,” if you will (which is the name of this album’s follow up). But perhaps more than any other Modest Mouse record, THIS IS A LONG DRIVE… captures the atmosphere of that inclination best, with 16 tracks with extended instrumental breaks spread across a big ol’ 74-minute runtime. It effectively established Modest Mouse’s unique sound, anchored by ghostlike guitar and moody bass, which can be best heard on “Dramamine.” THIS IS A LONG DRIVE… is such an exciting musical realm to reside within, even as it attempts to encapsulate the feeling of, well, a long drive when you have nothing to think about.
#4 — THE MOON & ANTARCTICA (2000)
Favorite track: “Alone Down There”
I suspect that for some at the time, THE MOON & ANTARCTICA was the expected “sellout point” for Modest Mouse, as they signed onto major label Epic before its production. But for many others, the album came to be regarded as the band’s best and one of the best of the era. THE MOON & ANTARCTICA is indeed a special album, a clear refinement of the sound Modest Mouse had produced on their first two albums. It carried the spacey and lonesome angst of those records, but it also upped it into some more angry territory. Brock’s voice had never sounded better, and his screams on “Alone Down There” especially are kind of chilling. Indeed, THE MOON & ANTARCTICA hits home with a bunch of strong songs, including “Dark Center of the Universe” and “Wild Packs of Family Dogs.” If my effusive praise for the album doesn’t quite match its #4 placement, it’s only because Modest Mouse does get better than this already great album. THE MOON & ANTARCTICA doesn’t place higher simply because it has a greater number of songs that I find just “good” rather than “great.” With some bands, the distinction between a #4 or a #3, or a #2 or a #1, is a specific, quantitative evaluation of how many “no-skip” songs are on a record than a general, qualitative feeling from the album-length experience. That is the case with Modest Mouse, THE MOON & ANTARCTICA, and the albums to follow on this list, and that’s because they’re all great.
#3 — THE LONESOME CROWDED WEST (1997)
Favorite track: “Out of Gas”
I’ve attempted to explain before how I experience lyrics with a lot of artists and songs, and I think the closest I’ve been able to articulate it was in writing about Sleater-Kinney’s ONE BEAT (2002). To summarize, though, I often don’t appreciate lyrical beauty as much as the accompanying music that illustrates the mood. Like, if I read Brock’s lyrics, I can recognize their greatness, but in listening to Modest Mouse, I dial into the sound of his voice more than the words themselves, and of course the sound of the music that surrounds them. So when looking at the lyrics to be found on THE LONESOME CROWDED WEST, I can go, “Huh. That’s what the song is about. Well, I kind of already felt that.” If the anger and desperation on THE MOON & ANTARCTICA was its defining trait, the same for THE LONESOME CROWDED WEST is its…well, loneliness. To specify, it’s the specially crafted universe that regards parts of this country and parts of our psyches existing in an almost separate plane of existence. If that sounds spacey and New Age-y, I apologize, because I hate that shit. But something about THE LONESOME CROWDED WEST resonates within me, best typified by “Out of Gas,” but also by “Long Distance Drunk.” The woe in them is palpable, and while the frantic energy of a song like “Doin’ the Cockroach” indicates there is a greater emotional range to be found on THE LONESOME CROWDED WEST (also part of its strength), it’s those two other songs, and the ones like it, that stick with me.
#2 — WE WERE DEAD BEFORE THE SHIP EVEN SANK (2007)
Favorite track: “March into the Sea”
Now, I don’t know if I can get quite as mystical with the writeups of the top two albums on this list, because I don’t know that they quite provoke the same kind of feeling. I don’t remember what was exactly my first Modest Mouse album, but it probably was one of these top two, as they were the band’s most recent at a time when I was branching out and exploring music. But WE WERE DEAD BEFORE THE SHIP EVEN SANK definitely made an impression on me regardless of when I listened to it. Although I’ve described Modest Mouse’s first three albums, in general terms, as their darkest, the reason why I said it was challenging to listen through the band’s whole discography is because the thread of that darkness continues through all of the records. That could be attributed to Brock’s instantly identifiable, unconventional voice, but I think the psychic maelstrom also takes on a new form, albeit in an admittedly reduced form, when paired with a broader, more pop-hook-conscious sound. I say “pop-hook-conscious” because I wouldn’t go so far as to say WE WERE DEAD… really got too close to poppy, but I do think Modest Mouse was catchiest, across more songs, on it and its predecessor. In the case of this album, help came from former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, just a great musician and an easily identifiable presence on this album for his fans. Marr was a full-fledged Modest Mouse member for this one album, and he was welcome in my book. Beyond him, though, WE WERE DEAD… is just generally fun, with a hint of the danger Modest Mouse has always had. That fun has always been there too; I don’t want to give the impression that the band’s music was always just dark and brooding. That’s part of their appeal, I think: a fusion of the macabre and strange with just generally great rock music that can get you moving. On WE WERE DEAD…, that fusion is almost never better.
#1 — GOOD NEWS FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE BAD NEWS (2004)
Favorite track: “Float On”
But of course I have to go with the big mainstream breakthrough, huh. If I was a musician, I think I’d sell out in a minute. Because if selling out gets you GOOD NEWS FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE BAD NEWS, well, shit. It’s Modest Mouse’s best album. Containing the big hit “Float On,” which takes the distinction of my favorite track only because it’s so damn catchy and, yeah, great, GOOD NEWS… introduced, in its ideal form, the fusion of dark and fun mentioned in reference to WE WERE DEAD BEFORE THE SHIP EVEN SANK. And it’s not like that wasn’t recognized. Although I suspect some fans regard it as inferior to their classic favorites, GOOD NEWS… was not only the band’s best seller to date, it was also a big critical success. Regardless of old fans’, new fans’, or critics’ opinions, though, I think GOOD NEWS… is the perfect Modest Mouse album. It’s the record I would play for anyone who had never listened to Modest Mouse before, and it’s the record I would return to first before any other from the band. As I described with WE WERE DEAD…, it’s not like GOOD NEWS… is some sudden pop or mainstream radio kowtow. It’s a principled evolution of a band with some already great chops, pushing themselves to make their darkness and fun and wistfulness heard in a new way, and greatly succeeding in the attempt.