Modest Mouse – The Moon and Antarctica

Modest Mouse
The Moon and Antarctica

Isaac Brock used to do a lot of screaming. Right from the beginning of Modest Mouse’s recording career, Brock always had a bone to pick. Over the past few years, he’s screamed about Cowboy Dan and how the West was lost. He’s screamed about strip malls, convenient parking, road maps, and long car drives. In between these fits of rage, Brock has lamented about trailer parks and convenience store parking lots, about heaven, hell, and shit luck. Even “Never Ending Math Equation’s” turntable solo hyped Brock’s distorted world view. On 1996’s This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, Brock pleaded with us to “let it break through.” Up until “The Moon and Antarctica,” Modest Mouse’s eclectic new release, Brock seemed to be searching for some kind of breakthrough. He was waiting for something, anything, to give.
“The Moon and Antarctica” finds Brock in a completely different position. Perhaps the breakthrough came. Perhaps not. Either, way, Brock is a little more laid back, as if he knows this game’s fixed. In fact, he says so. At the beginning of “The Stars Are Projectors,” this album’s only epic dirge, several shouting voices peek out through distorted, winding, swirling guitars, hauntingly repeating, “In the last second of life they’re gonna show you how. How they run this show. Sure. Run it into the ground.” The song then morphs into a folky, gazing guitar epic that Modest Mouse fans have come to love over the course of the past few years. Brock has changed, sure. However, he’s still not content. He’s still wildly and cryptically eccentric, and he’s still paranoid as hell.
Whereas Modest Mouse’s previous records focused on the band’s immediate surroundings, “The Moon and Antarctica” widens the band’s horizons, both musically and lyrically. The six-to-ten minute drones from prior albums are gone, replaced by some of the wildest three- and four-minute pop songs heard on a major label since perhaps Radiohead’s last release. “3rd Planet” opens the record, presenting the listener with an excellent idea of what the album will sound like: a band still distinctly itself, but more subdued and more direct. “Everything that keeps me together is falling apart” is Brock’s opening line on the album, hinting perhaps at the aforementioned breakthrough. The song continues in typical MM fashion, building, building, until finally Brock disrupts the brooding storm and abruptly ends the song with the same line he started with. “Gravity Rides Everything” and “Dark Center of the Universe” continue in the same fashion, off-kilter folk songs with that all-too-familiar guitar tone of Brock’s, for people who often wonder what the hell is wrong with people.
Songs like “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” and “Wild Pack of Family Dogs” are the most eccentric songs. They’re compact and somewhat silly, with lyrics that are a bit more abstract than most of the other songs (witness the repetition of the following line: “We’re going down the road towards cities made of ashes/gonna hit you on your face gonna punch you in your glasses”). New to the Modest Mouse repertoire are short, dark, haunting little songs that perhaps offer the clearest view into Brock: witness “Alone Down There” and “What People Are Made Of.” The former peers eerily into Brock’s subconscious: the song opens with Brock whispering, “How do How do you do. My name is you.” The latter, which closes the album, finds Brock almost reaching that screaming, breaking point, finally concluding that “[human beings] ain’t made of nothin’ but water and shit.”
“I Came as a Rat” and “Paper Thin Walls” wouldn’t be out of place on 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West – they share that same crazed, schizophrenic feel that pervaded much of that album. The most harrowing track is definitely “Lives,” which doesn’t appear until song 13, but its definitely the highlight of the album. The song structure and feel is classic Modest Mouse: a depressing dirge turns into a strumming, melodic acoustic number. The opening line is “Everyone’s afraid of their own lives/if you could be anything I bet you’d be disappointed am I right?” before moving on to more complex thoughts like “Well you were the sound of sharp math when you were alive,” and finally, “My hell comes from comes inside myself. Why fight this.” Creepy.
This is an important record, both for fans and for the band. The fans get a clearer, more focused (though no less depressing) record that once again longingly looks at American life, what it is and what it should be. Perhaps more importantly, the band made a progression. They survived the dreaded major label debut, recording a record that moves them into new territory while maintaining the band’s distinct sound and tone. It’s nearly impossible to compare this to the band’s older material, because its so different. If you’re waiting to hear me describe this record as “mature,” don’t hold your breath. Brock’s wild, longing discontent holds this album back from that word, yet it propels the band forward with a dizzying intensity that makes this band one of the most unique on the planet. Modern times are a mess. So is Isaac Brock. So am I. And you. Modest Mouse convey that idea better than any band in recent memory.