“Float On” was such a mindfuck at the time. At this point, Modest Mouse is unquestioningly accepted as part of an easily digestible indie industrial complex, a band whose jagged edges have been shaved into smooth contours by time, money, and inertia. But those edges were plenty sharp when Modest Mouse began. In their earliest incarnation as passionately beloved mid-’90s underground rockers, these guys were absolutely rabid — squirming ghost moans for guitars, drunken stomach punches for drums, and in Isaac Brock, an unhinged lead singer whose manic episodes surged from defeated whimpers to feral growls. Brock’s narratives of a dead-end existence amidst strip malls and forests positioned him as Washington’s most evocative chronicler of hopeless white trash despair since you know who. These were guys who sang about long-distance drunk driving, who talked shit about pretty sunsets, who once bragged to Pitchfork in some now-deleted interview about driving around looking for stray dogs to run over. They were mean and depressed and out of control. But little by little, album after album, they kept evolving into a tamer, more approachable beast, albeit a beast that always remained unmistakably weird. As tends to happen with artists whose music cuts to the core of so many human beings, a portion of the band’s original fan base was alienated by that transformation. To this day there are purists who jumped ship with 2000’s sprawling, glassy-eyed opus The Moon And Antarctica, much to the consternation of those of us who came on board at that point and still consider Moon to be Modest Mouse’s masterpiece. But even we zealots for the band’s art-damaged hi-fi major-label phase were taken aback when the guys who made “Shit Luck” released a willfully peppy major-key ditty about looking on the bright side, an airy frolic that made it all the way to American Idol, Kidz Bop, and, tragically, late-period Lupe Fiasco. “What the fuck is this?” we all wondered before loading it onto our iPods and bopping along.
Upon its arrival 10 years ago this Sunday, Good News For People Who Love Bad News, the album that spawned “Float On,” felt like the most radical departure of Modest Mouse’s career. But from this vantage point, with a bird’s-eye view overlooking two decades of output, it’s just one stop on a long, strange trip — or A Lifelong Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, if you prefer. It is undoubtedly a crossover record, one laced with the most brightly accessible material Modest Mouse had recorded to date, the album that broke them to a mass audience, and a bridge to the even more shopping-at-Trader-Joe’s-for-this-backyard-BBQ territory of “Dashboard” and “We’ve Got Everything.” But it’s also as unrepentantly pessimistic, bizarre, and longwinded as any other album in their discography. Typical ambivalence and identity confusion are evident from the album’s first few seconds: “The World At Large” launches Good News with the most gorgeously graceful track in Modest Mouse’s oeuvre, Brock’s very own “Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space” — but not before a jarring horn blast introduces the album, and not without laments such as “Why does it always feel like I’m caught in an undertow?” to anchor the celestial drift in characteristic despondency. Good News For People Who Love Bad News is a perfectly perverse way to sum it up.
Good News garnered Modest Mouse the most mainstream attention of the group’s career, but it was a transitional record in more ways than that. Jeremiah Green, the drummer responsible for the junkyard grooves and wanton battery that had been a key component of Modest Mouse’s signature sound, quit the band during the recording of the album. Benjamin Weikel of the Helio Sequence took over and did his best to approximate Green, and on songs a handful of numbers such as the relatively feel-good “Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes” rewrite “The View,” he managed well enough. But on the whole, Green’s absence is palpable on Good News. The relative rhythmic normalcy can be credited with wrangling Modest Mouse’s wilder instincts more than any softening in Brock’s songwriting.
That said, Brock’s songwriting definitely softened, at least in spurts. The album is almost comically polarized between gleaming radio-ready pop tunes that represent the next logical step from The Moon And Antarctica and gnarled swampy folk tunes carried over from Brock’s side project Ugly Casanova. The opening triptych of “The World At Large,” “Float On,” and “Ocean Breathes Salty” is as representative a post-O.C. indie rock salvo as you’ll find — and one of the best arguments that the genre’s crossover yielded more than just rotten plastic fruit. From there, the album plunges into a dark stretch that affirms the band’s rambunctious side while framing it in entirely new context. The raw and ragged spleen vent “Bury Me With It” and the maniacal rave-up “Dance Hall” are as frighteningly violent as anything the band has recorded. After that, the morose banjo-laden ballad “Bukowski,” the carnival-barking Tom Waits brass skronk “This Devil’s Work Day” (the album’s obnoxious nadir, IMO), and the backwoods death march “Satin In A Coffin” could almost pass for freak-folk — hey, it was all the rage — and they render Good News far from the breezy listen it could have been. Only “The View” is there to remind us that this is supposed to be Modest Mouse’s open-armed embrace of a mass audience.
Whether working in accessible or abrasive mode, Brock’s batting average was in decline on Good News. The last quarter of the album mostly plays like B-sides shoehorned in to satisfy Brock’s penchant for rambling run times, though the ethereal campfire singalong “The Good Times Are Killing Me” continued Modest Mouse’s streak of transcendent album closers. By virtue of sheer length, Modest Mouse albums have always been inconsistent, but Good News is when that inconsistency started to become bothersome, when the band stopped seeming so invincible. Despite all the fans who discovered Modest Mouse thanks to this album, quite a few jumped off the bandwagon disgruntled too. For me, as a wide-eyed college sophomore studying abroad in Spain, the album was both a revelation and a frustration, at once a comforting linkage to home and an utterly foreign object. In email debates with buddies back home, I often vacillated between calling this album a classic and wondering if one of my favorite bands was trying — too hard? Not hard enough? These days I’m pretty sure it doesn’t deserve to be ranked among indie rock’s greatest albums, but I’d definitely call it one of the genre’s most important, and amidst its mediocre patches can be found some of the most indelible, era-defining songs in the band’s catalog. It wouldn’t be Modest Mouse if it wasn’t a self-contained litmus test, confounding and inspiring and existing in its very own corner of the universe (the dark center, of course). Good News presented indie rock’s most triumphantly thought-provoking losers as beautifully imperfect as ever, but in surprising new ways. They were still the same old confrontational asshole geniuses, but this time around they made an album that managed to challenge their old fans as much as the new ones. For that reason alone, Good News remains a record worth remembering, reliving, and maybe even — if you’re as perverse as Modest Mouse — revering.
So let’s do that. What are your favorite memories attached to Good News? Which song sticks with you like no other? Was this the album that turned you on to Modest Mouse? Or maybe it turned you off for good? Float on to the comments and sound off.