Modest Mouse - The Lonesome Crowded West

Modest Mouse grew up in public, but popular opinion is that they really truly figured it out with 2000′s The Moon & Antarctica, creating one of those of albums that points to some just-out-of-reach understanding of the world. Listening to it, I knew I would eventually understand what Isaac Brock was singing about, but I didn’t yet. There was emotional honesty there, but it was tempered by exhaustion.

Writing about Shocking Pinks last week got me on an emotional honesty kick, though, so I won’t be writing about The Moon & Antarctica, aka Modest Mouse’s “adult” record, and instead am going to write about the much sloppier 1997 record, The Lonesome Crowded West.

The Lonesome Crowded West came after the excellently titled This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, which also tackled the great loneliness of pre-internet America. The world that Brock is singing about on both of those records was growing with abandon, piling strip malls on top of decayed gas stations on top of strip malls on top of gas stations. Brock and the rest of Modest Mouse, with typically cynical Northwestern humor, somehow managed to find beauty in this ugly twilight of an undefined America.

But unlike the coiled Moon & Antarctica, The Lonesome Crowded West sprawled and tripped over itself. Brock sounded either completely exhausted or beyond destroyed. His songs moved past what he saw in his native Issaquah, Washington, and out into the rest of the country, where he witnessed concrete taking over nature, and structures leveling trees. But Modest Mouse were too inward-looking and neurotic to be a preachy environmental band, so Brock’s obsession with the world becoming shitty felt personal, almost like a betrayal.

In the excellent documentary about the record, Brock says that it’s about “dehumanizing America,” and that seems like a pretty good blanket statement. Over the course of the album, cars break down, parking lots stretch endlessly and a cowboy even takes on god, impotently shooting his gun into the sky. That moment comes on “Cowboy Dan,” and features some of the most devastating lyrics of Brock’s entire career, the insolent, “God if I have to die you will have to die too,” and then later, in heartbreakingly claustrophobic detail, “I didn’t move to the city, the city moved to me/ and I want out desperately/ can’t do it, not even if sober, can’t get that engine turned over over,” his voice lilting into serenity, “standing in the tall grass, thinking nothing.”

Outside of the whole shooting-at-god part and the semi-fictional Cowboy Dan character (there really is a Cowboy Dan, but he’s not the guy in the song), Brock’s writing is pretty literal: nature’s going, the world is messed up and not getting any better, so what else do do but go down in a drunken ball of anger and impotence? Brock and the rest of the band are frustrated and angry, and there’s nowhere for that rage to go except into these songs, which sound like they’re held together by string and grit.

Growing up in Seattle, the change that Brock sang about felt very visible. I’m sure we’ll all come out the other side of adulthood having witnessed a lot of bizarre environmental changes and seemingly instant gentrification, and we’ll probably all be complicit in it too, but when I first heard The Lonesome Crowded West and started looking around, I felt like I’d been smacked in the face. Strip malls dominated, logging towns became graveyards of one dollar chinese buffets that weeded up just outside military bases, towns became little more than diners alternating with Dairy Queens with miles of nothing in between.

The Lonesome Crowded West is about Washington State changing, but it’s also a western in the traditional sense—songs twang and brood into a dry, clattering rage. Album opener “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” plods along to almost nothing, and then explodes into wheezing guitars, paired with Brock’s vocals, which don’t sound traditionally good. On The Lonesome Crowded West, he sounds desperate for catharsis, aiming for the stars but barely making it to the roof. It’s not pretty, but it’s honest, and that honesty makes it beautiful, like Modest Mouse were desperately trying — and failing — to hold onto that last bit of naiveté.

There are a couple lyrical moments that I used to look at as embarrassing but now feel are essential. “Trailer Trash”’s “And I guess that I missed you, and I’m sorry if I dissed you,” and “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine”’s very specific mention of having another Orange Julius, which was a drink you could get at the mall that tasted like a melted orange creamsicle mixed with a handful of sand. A long time ago, these lyrics stuck out as flawed. They meant too much realism was creeping into Brock’s blurred landscape. But now, their awkwardness works. It grounds songs that were written by a romantic that would like to be more cynical, but even through a veil of frustration, he still manages to make the open road seem like something to forever strive for.

Though Lonesome Crowded West was the album that made Modest Mouse a great band instead of just a good one, “Dramamine,” from This is a Long Drive was the moment that Brock’s skill at writing isolation became apparent. It’s a bumpy track, appealing for its amateurishness and the way it twinkles and stumbles the same way much of Lonesome Crowded West later would.

On “Dramamine” the world hasn’t closed in yet. There are still towns to explore, cities to breeze through, people to leave behind. When Brock sings “We kiss on the mouth but still cough down our sleeves,” he sounds confused about the conventions of intimacy. By the time Lonesome Crowded West came out a few years later, Brock’s world was composed of endless touring, endless strip malls, and a constant scrabble for meaning in that pavement, as if he’d already figured out the world but wasn’t too sure he liked what he’d discovered.

Comments (14)
  1. Excellent write up. Modest Mouse is an intensely personal band for me, and my group of friends each had our own favorite album. One friend, a guy who insisted that Pablo Honey was the best thing Radiohead had ever done and sounded uncannily like the guy from Plain White Ts when playing in his power pop band, is convinced Good News for People Who Love Bad News was the best rock album of the last decade. Another friend who grew up skateboarding loved The Moon and Antarctica, helped along by P4k reviews that talked about things like Isaac Brock spinning new creation myths. As for me, I’ve been obsessed with “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset” for years now, it was the first song I ever learned to play all the way through on guitar, and having transplanted from a small mountain town to a mid-size city I always identified with the restless loneliness in This Is A Long Drive.

    The Lonesome Crowded West is a different beast. One of my best friends and roommate was the biggest Modest Mouse fan I knew, he had all their albums as well as stuff like Building Nothing Out of Something and side projects like Ugly Casanova. But Lonesome Crowded West was his unquestioned favorite. He just identified with its visceral ragged edges I suppose. He passed about two years ago of an overdose. I can still listen to most of the stuff we both liked no problem (Broken Social Scene, My Morning Jacket, Flaming Lips) but Lonesome Crowded West is just something else. It’s too close. I can almost hear him singing along horribly off key whenever I listen to it, so I’ve been avoiding it. I dunno what I’m getting at here, maybe I should just try to listen to it again. And I’m sorry this is so damn long. Again, good write up, it obviously got me thinking.

  2. My favorite band growing up and my favorite album growing up. I still throw on Styrofoam boots and get so excited when the drums kick in.

  3. I like that you pointed out the tension between Brock’s intellectual cynicism and to-the-core romanticism. However, I always felt like he wasn’t really “a romantic that would like to be more cynical,” but a profoundly even middle point between the two. I think this is one of the many reasons I love this album so much.

  4. An album that deserves all the love it receives. Always about to collapse in on itself but it propels itself forward on….what? Two-thirds of the way of the into the album, Brock moans that he’s out of gas, but they keep going all the way to Styrofoam Boots where shit breaks all the way into pieces. They pushed themselves further than even they thought they could go, and we get transcendent gems like Polar Opposites out of it: desperation and defeatism run through a kaleidoscope. The essential road trip album for every reason.

  5. My favorite Modest Mouse record and an all-time favorite in general!

  6. I love this album, it has to be one of my favorite albums of all time, the angst and raw energy is unparalleled to any other album I’ve heard.
    And is anybody going to mention the amazing drum fill in truckers atlas? God I’d give anything to be able to play that beat

  7. Great write-up, though I can’t say I agreed with everything. For starters, I always was under the assumption that Moon and Antarctica lived in the shadow of Lonesome Crowded West in the eyes of hardcore Modest Mouse fans, not the other way around. I prefer M&A myself, but I thought I was a minority. Also, “nature’s going, the world is messed up and not getting any better, so what else do do but go down in a drunken ball of anger and impotence” falls far short as a summary of the album. Isaac Brock’s lyrics are too rich and layered for me not be annoyed by reducing the album to that. I did like what you said about the duality of Isaac’s cynicism and romanticism. I always thought His earnest and tenderness and yearning for transcendence outshined his cynicism, which is part of what sets Modest Mouse apart from their peers. And I love your pointing out the two secretly great lines on the album: “Orange Julius” and “sorry if I dissed you” do sound so corny at first, but they really work. Overall, great article; it’s always nice to see Modest Mouse get some love.

    Can we all just talk about how fucking great this band is and how ambitious and powerful their lyrics are?

    One more thing: what’s this about Dramamine being amateurish? Sparse, maybe, but “amateurish” is a strong word. It’s probably the best song ever written by a bunch of redneck eighteen year-olds.

  8. Lonesome Crowded West is also my favorite MM album, save for perhaps Building Nothing out of Something.
    I just wanted to make a point: I think they deserve recognition for making each of their albums pretty long (13-14 tracks, 60-70 min) without much filler.

  9. That documentary about this album mentioned here is really great. I wish one existed for Moon & Antarctica too.

    On another note, acknowledging that The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica are the two best Modest Mouse albums, I’m still waiting for the day that we snobs can admit that Good News is also a really solid record.

  10. Gee whiz. This album. I don’t think it’s possible to make a better album. “Cowboy Dan” and “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” are just perfect songs.

  11. gotta say, listening to trailer trash again makes me feel overwhelmingly nostalgic.

  12. The nerve of these guys – unleashing something like “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” (probably my favorite song of the 90s, hands down), and then having the audacity to follow it up with an entire, actual ALBUM. You don’t even have to worship the band to admit that no one does opening thesis statements like these guys – “Dramamine”, “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine”, “3rd Planet”, “The World At Large” – all “Call me Ishmael”-class.

    Anyways, always good to see the torch is still going strong, critically speaking. I know my nostalgia isn’t paying the band half the respect it’s due, but this and TIALDFSWNTTA were pretty much the world to me going to high school in rural-ish Idaho with barely a glimmer of an idea what indie rock was.

  13. See, then I read articles like this that still make me believe in indie music. This album is absolutely fantastic. People should just write about Modest Mouse every day and never mention MGMT again.

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