MUSIC REVIEW: Modest Mouse

We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank Epic
Music •••½ Sound •••
Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock is the sort of person who isn't truly happy unless he's having a bad day. Even so, his dyspeptic outlook on We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank - whose central metaphor is a ship going down in troubled seas - seems entirely justified in a world that's tilting dangerously toward environmental apocalypse. Brock's dark mood makes for gripping listening, especially since the band now includes ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, whose gleamingly agitated, algebraic jangle complements and counterpoints Brock's dark, sardonic rants. Theirs is an interesting mesh of sensibilities, with the material on We Were Dead benefiting from their challenging interaction.

Brock's fractured lyrics yield piercing phrases that cut to the intended heart of the matter in songs that are otherwise densely couched in metaphor. "Fire It Up," for example, isn't stoner-speak for lighting a joint. It's about cranking up a broken-down car for another redundant trip to nowhere while the climate changes and the atmosphere broils - a point brilliantly (if elliptically) made in the line "We'd tried to hide the daylight from the sun" and the reference to "life's best mine canaries." Similarly, Brock abstractly hits the bull's-eye, as regards global warming, in "Parting of the Sensory," where he sings: "A lifelong walk to the same exact spot / Carbon's anniversary." The song starts acoustically with an elegiac tone - as if to say, "Bye bye, world" - and Brock piles on anger, profanity, resignation, and sadness as the song builds to a stormy peak.

We Were Dead is filled with ambitious songs that grapple forcefully with difficult subjects. The centerpiece is "Spitting Venom," a nearly 9-minute epic that seems to be about the end of things (a relationship? the social fabric? our doomed planet?) and personal withdrawal from the whole infernal charade: "We've got a knack for messed-up history," growls Brock. "It's over / Game over." Listen to the dynamic jolt that occurs when the instruments kick in at 1:27. Whereas Brock counseled us to "float on" in the feel-good song of the same name from Modest Mouse's last album (2004's Good News for People Who Love Bad News), the orders from the deck are less sanguine this time: "So let it drop. Let it all drop. Let it drop." Game over.

"Dashboard" is one of Brock's catchiest numbers, with funky rhythm guitar, a propulsive beat, and a hooky chant: "Well, it would've been, could've been worse than you would ever know." And in the end, Brock's jittery voice, Marr's compelling guitar, the unsettling lyrics, and the offbeat music on We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank recall Talking Heads' Naked, another doomsday scenario that's as alluring as it is disconcerting.

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