There are many ways to measure success, but by any tangible metric, Modest Mouse is one of indie rock’s biggest success stories. The Pacific Northwest band—founded in Issaquah, Washington, by Isaac Brock, Eric Judy and Jeremiah Green in 1992—went from playing basements at Seattle house shows to a platinum album and multiple Grammy nominations in their first decade or so together, and they’ve persisted for nearly two more, though the acclaim around their output has flagged considerably during their post-hype period.
The sound at the core of that career has always been compellingly difficult to define. Modest Mouse deliberately distanced themselves from Seattle’s booming grunge scene in the ‘90s, identifying more with the likes of Built to Spill than, say, Mudhoney, and they were right to do so: Lumping their nervy, mercurial sound in with any one rock trend would have done it a disservice. Brock and company were more blue-collar than flannel-clad, yet they carved out a weirdo niche that transcended the sound du jour, as evidenced by the indie-rock institution status they still enjoy today.
Modest Mouse are a uniquely American band, exploring concepts that are core to the country (the open road, strip malls, cowboys, wanton environmental destruction, etc.) at length in their songwriting, and melding aggressive, oblique rock with more accessible pop melodies. The band’s guiding principle, as Brock has long maintained, is to never make the same album twice—you might say change is their only constant. The same has proven true of the band’s lineup, not to mention the production values and lyrical themes of their releases over the years.
With last week’s release of their seventh album, The Golden Casket, we decided it was time to go on record with our ranking of the Modest Mouse discography, cracking Brock’s trucker’s atlas and applying some method to his madness. For simplicity’s sake, we’ve stuck to the band’s studio LPs, meaning no Building Nothing Out of Something, Sad Sappy Sucker, Ugly Casanova or the like. But there’s quite a journey to be had regardless.
There’s been no longer interval between Modest Mouse records than the eight years that preceded Strangers to Ourselves, an album that seems to have been hurt, not helped, by all the time it took to come together. Not only is it not particularly cohesive, but it’s also marred by a few overproduced, ill-advised tracks almost off-base enough to make you forget why you liked this band in the first place: “Sugar Boats” is garish carnival music that shrugs its shoulders at the existential questions Brock made a career out of (“This rock of ours is just some big mistake / And we will never know just where we go / Or where we have came from”), while electro-pop stomper “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” is a misfire on every level. Even at its best, Strangers to Ourselves feels uninspired, like Modest Mouse doing an impression of themselves: Lead single “Lampshades on Fire,” bouncy dance-rock peppered with ghostly guitar notes, finds Brock grimly joking about humanity using up the planet—“Well, we’re the human race / We’re going to party out this place / And then move on”—and that “party” continues on “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box,” which boasts catchy hooks and purposeful guitars over a lively groove, but mostly just rests on those laurels. The acoustic “Coyotes” is toothless and indistinct, and the subsequent “Pups to Dust” wastes slick instrumentation on halfhearted Brockisms like “I don’t lie very often but I lie very well” and “Love does not cost money but it ain’t free.” High points like “The Tortoise and the Tourist,” the “Shit in Your Cut” riff/refrain and Brock’s shockingly personal songwriting on “Ansel” are the exception, not the rule. Strangers to Ourselves isn’t quite a bad album, but it’s easily the least essential Modest Mouse have ever felt, and even they seem to know it. ”“What in hell are we here for? / We just do not know,” Brock sings on the closing track, titled … wait for it … “Of Course We Know.”
Without the pandemic, it might have been another eight years before we heard from Modest Mouse again. Instead, we’re treated to the pleasant surprise that is The Golden Casket, which rises comfortably above the resigned, rudderless scattershot of Strangers to Ourselves. Brock sets the tone from the jump, rejecting the wild larks of his past on the bouncy, acoustic guitar-driven “Fuck Your Acid Trip”—as if to say, “it’s hip to be square.” The songwriter is preoccupied with technology (“Hashtaggin’, photo braggin’, no one’s even sort of real,” he laments on “Wooden Soldiers”), a fixation that comes furthest to the fore on the woozy “Transmitting Receiving,” but also with fatherhood, producing tracks that, while oddly chintzy and singsongy in their production and arrangement (particularly the 1-2 punch of “The Sun Hasn’t Left” and “Lace Your Shoes”), are sweet and hopeful in a way that feels like new territory for this band. Elsewhere, “We Are Between” and “Leave a Light On” provide the hooky, late-career Modest Mouse meat and potatoes, and the record finishes strong with “Japanese Trees” and “Back to the Middle,” mixing gnarled aggression and spacy lightness. As on Strangers to Ourselves, Brock doesn’t have all the answers here, but he seems more at peace than ever with the mysteries of existence: “It takes a lifetime to ever figure out that there / There ain’t no lifetime that’s ever figured out,” he sings on “We’re Lucky.” Modest Mouse are aging gracefully, and radiating gratitude for every moment they’re given: “Scratch words in the dirt to remember that / We’re up here right now, not forever” might as well be a mission statement.
Modest Mouse’s highest-charting album, We Were Dead is also the only LP they released featuring Johnny Marr as a full-time member (and the last featuring founding bassist Judy). Credit where credit is due: The band didn’t exactly rein themselves in after “Float On” sent them into the alt-radio stratosphere. Hit singles like “Dashboard” and “Missed the Boat” (one of several songs to feature James Mercer of The Shins) were harbingers of the glossy, lukewarm sound Modest Mouse would come to embrace post-commercial breakout, but We Were Dead—originally envisioned as a dark nautical concept album, naturally—is full of exciting sonic dynamics. “Parting of the Sensory” starts out a subdued blend of acoustic strums and strings, but gradually builds into an off-kilter freak-folk stomper in which Brock warns, “Someday you will die somehow / and someone’s gonna steal your carbon.” Album highlight “Spitting Venom” poses as a folky strummer before exploding into vintage Modest Mouse mode, with Marr further fortifying the guitar arsenal, and synth and horn accents aiding an enthralling crescendo. But sometimes the sonic indulgence is a drag: “Education” and “Steam Engenius” (which sandwich the somber “Little Motel”) are overwrought, weighed down by all their bells and whistles. “Fly Trapped in a Jar” is perhaps the best representation of We Were Dead’s odd, conflicted blend of studio polish and willful discordance—sleek guitars and Brock’s loopy vocal performance feel at odds, like Modest Mouse are trying to straddle an ever-widening stylistic gulf.
For millennials of a certain age, this record is nearly impossible to evaluate with any objectivity. Good News was one of a handful of 2004 albums—alongside Interpol’s Antics, The Killers’ Hot Fuss, Franz Ferdinand’s self-titled debut, Arcade Fire’s Funeral and TV on the Radio’s Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes—that were formative for an entire generation of iTunes giftcard-hoarding indie-rock obsessives in training. The album is also difficult to separate from its context as Modest Mouse’s launchpad to commercial success: “Float On” casts a long shadow over it all, particularly the killer opening stretch that also includes its fellow singles “The World at Large” and “Ocean Breathes Salty.” Their shortest album at “just” 48 minutes, Good News also feels like the band’s most overstuffed, somehow, with a couple of brief interludes padding out the tracklist, and a stylistic sprawl that shows off Modest Mouse’s composition capabilities while fuzzing the album’s focus somewhat. Banjos, strings and horns are more prominent than ever, featuring most heavily on “Bukowski,” “Satin in a Coffin” and the Tom Waits-y “This Devil’s Workday”—as if to counterweight all that bombast, “Blame It on the Tetons” is the band’s gentlest song to this point, with Brock singing softly over piano amble, acoustic chords and strings, “Language is the liquid that we’re all dissolved in / Great for solving problems, after it creates a problem.” But the album’s bedrock is hooky, yet wonky guitar rock that scratches the Modest Mouse itch with ease: “The View,” “Black Cadillacs” and “Bury Me With It” (“Life handed us a paycheck, we said ‘we worked harder than this’” is an elite lyric) all rock. Though fans may never forgive Good News for exposing Modest Mouse to the world, it’s still one of their most accessible, consistently satisfying records.
If there’s one Modest Mouse album that establishes and maintains a specific tone throughout, it’s their first. Just like its title and the grayscale highway on its cover, This Is a Long Drive evokes isolation, anxiety and possibility, capturing that long haul feeling of traversing the middle of nowhere on your way to everywhere … or just anywhere. “Dramamine,” an all-timer of a Modest Mouse track, kicks the album off an engrossing note, with Brock’s spidery shoegaze guitars opening onto a tone-setting juggling act, equal parts excitement and unease (“We kiss on the mouth, but still cough down our sleeves”). Like the thrill of hitting the road giving way to unbroken monotony, This Is a Long Drive settles into a groove, rocking but sprawling in a droning, spaced-out sort of way, most memorably on tracks like “Custom Concern,” “Beach Side Property” and “Ionizes & Atomizes.” Brock howls about city sprawl and county lines over guitar-rock sojourns that meander by design, filling up space with hollow movement—motion posing as action. “Build bridges to nothing, you’ll get nowhere,” Brock warns over wailing guitar riffage on “Tundra/Desert,” a song that matches the inhospitable desolation of its eponymous landforms. The lovely “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset,” tucked away near the end of the tracklist, is a laidback strummer that later gains the same freight-train momentum typical of the rest of the record (plus some Beatles-y psychedelia that isn’t)—meanwhile, Brock turns his seeking instincts on himself (“My mind changed me so much I can’t even trust myself,” he reflects). Though it ends unassumingly and sags some in the middle, This Is a Long Drive is unquestionably a trip worth taking.
The margin between Modest Mouse’s second- and best records is razor thin—we debated swapping them right up until pushing “publish.” The band’s breakthrough album, The Lonesome Crowded West finds Brock, Judy and Green sharpening This Is a Long Drive’s sweeping meditations to a fine point, keeping it directed at (sub)urban sprawl, the loneliness that persists even in big population centers, and the corporate soullessness that drives it all—what Brock called “the dehumanization of America.” The album retains its predecessor’s commitment to thematic focus while ramping up the winding and anxious guitars, smartass lyricism and ambitious, yet engaging arrangements that would come to define Modest Mouse’s sound. Highlights abound: “Teeth like God’s Shoeshine” is an absolute jackhammer, with big, bold guitars, unhinged Brock vocals and trenchant lyrics (“Let’s all have another Orange Julius,” he mocks; “The malls are the soon-to-be ghost towns,” he warns), followed by the tightly coiled riffage and subtle turntablism of “Heart Cooks Brain.” The god-tier “Truckers Atlas” rides a killer Green groove right out of town and over the horizon, with Brock’s vocals alternately explosive and apathetic (the line “I don’t feel and I feel great” captures both ends of that spectrum, fittingly), and “Polar Opposites” as the ragged comedown after. The existentially hilarious hoedown of “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child” feels like the origin (and apex) of a very specific type of Modest Mouse track. Gonzo jams “Doin’ the Cockroach” and “Cowboy Dan” get wacky, then “Trailer Trash” downshifts into personal and poignant. “Shit Luck” just plain rips. The Lonesome Crowded West has a little bit of everything, and is an undisputed indie-rock classic.
The band’s first major-label release is also their best—go figure. The Moon & Antarctica, Modest Mouse’s third album and Epic Records debut, finds them incorporating the sonic experimentation and touches of studio wizardry that would loom large (too large) in their later work, but keeps that kind of style at arm’s length, never allowing it to supersede the substance of their songwriting. The band’s mastery of that balance makes itself known early on: “3rd Planet,” “Gravity Rides Everything,” “Dark Center of the Universe,” “Perfect Disguise” and “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” constitute the strongest album-opening stretch in their catalog, which is no faint praise. Even in that first act of the record, Modest Mouse are cultivating a dizzying mixture of explosive guitar-rock, dreamy, dark pop and off-kilter Americana, as if dropping the stylistic pebble that would ripple outward through the waters of their entire discography. The band’s first LP to clock in at under an hour (if only just), The Moon & Antarctica sidesteps drift and bloat, yet is packed with left-field elements: the acoustic psych-guitar accents of “Lives,” a wheezy accordion on “Wild Packs of Family Dogs,” staccato synths giving way to banjo picking on “Perfect Disguise,” the clattering drum machine and backwards chords of “Gravity Rides Everything.” Brock, who had his jaw wired shut after it was broken in an attack mere weeks into the recording process, hunkered down in the studio alone to finish out the album, doing what he recently called “way too much layering.” But underneath all that surreal atmosphere is Modest Mouse’s raw sound—Brock’s ragged voice and wryly existential lyrics (e.g., “Well, God said something but didn’t mean it / Everyone’s life ends but no one ever completes it”), lurching rhythms, stabbing guitars—still in there, powering everything. It’s a singular band at their very best.
Scott Russell is Paste’s music editor and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.