by Ryan Wasoba
Modest Mouse was great before Modest Mouse was any good. Before the band burst into mainstream consciousness with one mega-hit (“Float On”) and two songs popular enough to occasionally be piped into a Target (“Dashboard” and “Ocean Breathes Salty”), it made jagged indie-rock perpetually on the brink of collapse. Isaac Brock wrote devastating reflections on mortality and love through lyrics about road trips and shopping malls and space. His whammy-heavy guitar playing was apocalyptic, while drummer Jeremiah Green and bassist Eric Judy held his hand into the abyss rather than holding down the fort. But like all once sloppy, charming bands (ie. Built To Spill, Death Cab For Cutie), Modest Mouse got better. And naturally, some of the band’s character was lost in the process.
Of all my favorite bands, my relationship with Modest Mouse is the most complicated. I stumbled on the band in 2001 and fell hard for The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica, albums on either side of the Millennium that frequently rank on lists of best albums of their respective decades. As I dug further back into This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About and Build Nothing Out Of Something, I was fascinated with the band’s looseness. I remember playing these records for a musician friend who didn’t understand why I liked a band that wasn’t very good at their instruments, and I compared it to a little league baseball game in which enthusiasm and intent outweigh execution.
When 2003 rolled around, I bought Good News For People Who Love Bad News. I loved it at first, and I was thrilled to hear what Modest Mouse sounded like tightened up; I felt like I didn’t have to make excuses for the band anymore. But I was sketched out by the vocals on songs like “Dancehall” and “This Devil’s Workday.” Almost as a compensating mechanism for the band’s cleaner songs, Isaac Brock started singing like a Muppet imitating Tom Waits. This misguided delivery seemed like the template for 2007’s We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank: As the music got shinier, the vocals got dumber. The jagged indie-rock band with a meek singer I loved became a bloated pop band with a wacky frontman. It was like Pavement morphing into Faith No More.
This gradual shift in priorities left me conflicted. I never wanted Modest Mouse to be stuck in a comfort zone. I didn’t want them to never improve at their instruments so they would never lose their charm. One of the exciting things about the band’s classic albums is the obvious progression. The lush, studio-embracing The Moon & Antarctica has little in common with its jagged predecessor Lonesome Crowded West, which is like a prog album compared to This Is A Long Drive…
Disliking a favorite band’s new album is a tale as old as bands that have made second albums. Noisey recently posted an article called “The Weezer Paradox: Why Can’t Bands With Unlimited Resources Make Good Albums?” focusing on Weezer and Metallica as “bands who reject their past in order to move forward.” Reading it, I kept thinking about how Modest Mouse is different from these bands. The more thought I invest into wondering what happened to Modest Mouse, the fewer standard reasons why bands diverge from their fans seem to ring true. The aforementioned hit songs opened the door to new listeners (hippies mostly, from my experience), but the influx of new fans has not seemed to affect the music the band produces. I’ve yet to hear the group clumsily try to recreate “Float On,” and I’ve similarly never heard a Modest Mouse fan use the word “sellout.”
Furthermore, the fans of Modest Mouse are different from followers of Weezer and Metallica, who tend to want narrow things from these bands and reflexively dislike their new albums. Modest Mouse fans are like Radiohead fans, giving the artist the benefit of the doubt because they know how fulfilling it can be to love one of their records. I don’t take satisfaction in hating on music, and I want to love the bands I love forever. Sometimes I just don’t, and I’m starting to feel like that’s nobody’s fault.
Earlier this year, Modest Mouse released Strangers To Ourselves. It’s an improvement from We Were Dead… (which, after eight years of hindsight, is still a tremendously bad record). Strangers might be the band’s most middle-of-the-road record to date, but that’s fine. I used to feel heartbroken, betrayed even, when my favorite bands put out records I didn’t like. Maybe I thought that a bad album would tarnish the ones I loved, and that’s just dumb. I’ve survived one bad and two just-okay Modest Mouse albums at this point, and I still get goosebumps when Isaac Brock sings “Every time you think you’re walking you’re just moving the ground” on “Cowboy Dan.” I’m still tempted to replay “Might” every time it fades out after barely a minute.