“Traveling, swallowing Dramamine.” Modest Mouse have always been about movement. They travel. They are a traveling circus. Their early albums were long drives exploring interstates (an old photo of a young Isaac, with mutton chops and razor pimples, shows him steering a truck with one hand, the American expanse behind his profile). Then they embarked on a celestial journey, accelerating through dark matter and ash. They took seasonal drives, breezy and relaxed, seeing sights like the Teton Range and white trash. With We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, we start off at a pit stop — no, a semi-permanent setting up of shop. Stasis. Empty the covered wagon, boys. Play the same saloon every Thursday-Saturday. Be a jug band, a honky-tonk ensemble, a barbershop quartet on Sunday mornings outside an unlisted church of unknown faith. With fuel prices what they are, who can blame them for pulling over?
After the stint on land, Modest Mouse took to the salty-breathing ocean. It drew them in. The excursion went on. High water rose, and they were wrecked. After floating in the Pacific, clenching petrol barrels for two weeks, the band was rescued. The album cover depicts an anchored Montgolfier hot air balloon. Modest Mouse has gotten off the ground — they aren’t tethered to any spikes in the mud. They’ve gotten off the sea’s frothy crest — no fishes snipping at their feet. The band huddles in the wicker basket, careful their hairs don’t singe on the liquid propane burner. Brock, like a sheep, nibbles imperturbably on a wicker straw. Jeremiah Green and Eric Judy cower in the corner, like a cock and a duck. Brock keeps a flint striker woven in his guitar strings, right above the nut. The anchor doesn’t keep them down; it’s more of a charm. They soar. “Traveling, swallowing Dacron.”
In theory, it’s the purest of magic — a spectacle from Pullman, WA to Avignon: A supply of taffeta (Marr) and cordage (Brock), producing astonishing results. Johnny Marr fits so perfectly in the wicker basket that his contribution goes almost completely unnoticed. This is a good thing. He doesn’t change this band; he maintains it.
The band has trekked the BNSF Railway Hi-Line from Spokane to Havre. Now they take us to Florida, cruise-controlling past belly-up crocodiles. The album was recorded in Oxford, Mississippi and mixed in Portland, Oregon — magnetic tape, like handlebar streamers, rippling from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Northwest. They take us to unascertainable elsewheres — terra incognitae.
One can see Isaac Brock standing behind his microphone, cocksure, with his legs spread. He’s dressed in clothes made out of wasps. These songs he sings rarely fail to turn sinister. Musically, with these instruments and these arrangements, nearly every track is of peak interest. Brock has mentioned he’s indebted to jug bands, with their bottles, buzz saws, clackers, and contraptions, and those sounds spring up on this album — spry and nimble. When Brock can’t muster the words, he forces any utterance from his mouth — oh-acklah, clack glack-ah, whuh-hoo. They are crawly harmonies.
If “Float On” was sprightly, “Dashboard” is a cool blue kinesis. “People as Places as People” is like fresh laundry billowing on the clothesline. “Fly Trapped in a Jar” takes a Clash-like diversion (a tire-squealing detour) into Brock’s harsh rendition/revision of “Rapper’s Delight.” It’s the most hip-hop the band has been since those scratches on The Lonesome Crowded West. And James Mercer, friend and kind fellow, shows support with backup vocals (“Florida,” “Missed the Boat,” “We’ve Got Everything”), sounding like an English-accented robot built in Albuquerque. What Mercer adds to the songs is immeasurable. Like Marr, Mercer blends in like a blood brother.
People have been waiting for Modest Mouse to falter, for the muffler to sputter, for the hot air balloon to brush the tops of trees, but it has yet to happen. A diagnosis of their discography proves how firm and substantial the band is. Some thought Good News For People Who Love Bad News was a slip, but it wasn’t. Neither is We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. It is solid, like a landmass. With each song, rain washes away waste and buried treasure emerges from the dirt. Erosion reveals the wheeze of a pump organ, hammer-ons like bird chirps, and those trademark slides, skid-marking the highway. Listen to how Brock sings well and hell during the chorus on “Missed the Boat.” Listen to the puff-puff-puff-fah of the horn on “Spitting Venom.”
Music dignitaries and primordial fans will be contented. If they’re smart, they’ll rejoice. Modest Mouse’s career, as an epic poem, began: Isaac from Issaquah. The stanzas continue to unravel. Travel.