How Modest Mouse Won the Lonesome Crowded West

The band's sprawling breakthrough continues to surprise and baffle 20 years later


Let’s take a moment to pause and fully savor the fact that Modest Mouse, like Cake or Devo, is not a band that ever had to exist, much less be good or successful. They weren’t an inevitability in any way; like you can trace Isaac Brock’s demented carnival-barker voice to Captain Beefheart or Tom Waits sort of, but the blues was very important to those guys, and there really isn’t a lick of blues in Modest Mouse’s obtuse racket. Of all ‘90s indie bands to make some kind of impact, Modest Mouse were the most obvious freak show. It makes absolutely no sense why they had a hit and say, Built to Spill, who also signed to a major label, didn’t. Like, the obvious answer is that Modest Mouse is good, and sometimes that prevails. But so is Built to Spill. Isaac Brock wasn’t renowned for his chops like J Mascis, wasn’t a sex symbol like Evan Dando, wasn’t even a cultural commentator like Stephen “Stone Temple Pilots, they’re elegant bachelors” Malkmus. His charisma is debatable, and Modest Mouse’s live shows weren’t particularly legendary. How did he of all people manage to score a deal with Epic and take “Float On” platinum on a timeline that wasn’t even very irregular?

I don’t have an answer for you, because the reasons people like Modest Mouse don’t seem to translate to mass success. Though, we said that about Trump’s candidacy as well. Modest Mouse are exceptionally original, as far as variations on the Pixies’ noise-to-tune ratio go. You couldn’t have expected them, the aforementioned harsh, yelling-not-screaming, melting Dali guitars, the completely unafraid excursions into auxiliary instrumentation as if turntable scratching (“Heart Cooks Brain”) and hoedown fiddle (“Jesus Christ Was an Only Child”) were completely logical additions to their atonal sprawl. Their subject matter is ugly in a decorous manner rather than emotional: “Doin’ the Cockroach”, “Trailer Trash”, and “Long Distance Drunk” are all titles that evoke the grayest, moldiest parts of middle America, being “sung” by a dude who sounds like he could have a pulmonary embolism at any second. The 1990s were just an exceptional time for previously unmade sounds, and mind-mindbogglingly rewarding for them, too; Cake scored not one, not two, but something like five big hits and, eventually, a No. 1 album with dry sarcasm, g-funk synths, and trumpet as the tools.

Maybe it should be even weirder that Modest Mouse has not one but two consensus albums, The Lonesome Crowded West, which turns 20 today, and The Moon and Antarctica, which is less harsh on the ears and a lot spacier. They’re great records, but it’s truly bizarre that people agree on them. The Lonesome Crowded West is the far bigger exclamation point, though; it’s longer, spikier, and catchier and, at the same time, more improbable and original. The most “professional” thing about it is that it sounds fully formed. The previous debut, This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, from 1996, was a fascinating dry run with lots more ugliness counterbalancing the prettiness, an exploration of a sound and worldview that was about to come together quick.

That brings us to the album of the hour, which puts its ugliest foot forward on “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine”, all guitar notes bent out of shape and up-is-down brimstone preaching from Brock: “From the top of the ocean, yeah-heah!/ To the bottom of the sky, yeah-heah!” It bounds along for a minute and a half before giving way to something like prettiness while Brock contemplates being able to sell one’s conscience. Then there’s a tempo change. Then we get a chorus, finally, nearly three minutes in. The whole shindig lasts just under seven. But it’s already expanded indie-rock to be so many things it hadn’t really been yet: epic, prog, anthemic, and somewhat redolent of an Americana most songwriters were too oblique to describe. Grandaddy’s Under the Western Freeway recently turned 10 itself and also helped pioneer this sprawling driving-across-a-dead-nation travelogue punk. Except where Jason Lytle was banging up tender folk melodies in a form familiar to Crazy Horse fans, Modest Mouse sounded like nothing familiar except maybe Lick My Decals Off, Baby reworked by upper West Coast custodians who, bored of watching MTV’s 10 Spot and dumped by their girlfriends, decided to take a trip across the country in a discount monster truck.

Many of the lyrics on The Lonesome Crowded West indeed sound like things Isaac Brock murmured to himself on the road at three in the morning: “I try to get my head clear/ I push things out through my mouth and get refilled through my ears.” Amidst the talk of freeways and highways, he character-sketches a seller of “rocks” and asks him, “Aren’t you feeling real dirty sitting in the parking lot?” He illustrates a girl with a lisp who doesn’t know her cinematographer boyfriend is “really pornographer.” He introduces us to “Cowboy Dan”, a “major player on the cowboy scene,” and implores us to try a disgusting dance (“Doin’ the Cockroach”). “Shit Luck” is entirely about one mean little riff and transportation disasters; it’s a PG-rated update of Butthole Surfers’ “The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey’s Grave”. Brock’s odd cadence becomes a weary folk warble on “Bankrupt on Selling”, where he describes townspeople who “sell their trash to each other.” It’s entirely possible that no indie rock album has ever painted such rich and funny, if uncompromising and maybe even cruel, images of small-town life since.

There’s a landlocked feel to other landmark alternative rock albums from this period: Radiohead’s OK Computer is some kind of claustrophobic metropolis short-circuiting its humanoid citizens, Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One sounds like a groovy couple who doesn’t have to leave the apartment to discover new treasure, especially not when they own a vibraphone. And the distinct feel of so many indie and punk records of the time was suburban or married to a particular city; the old saw that these music nerds never leave the house.

Modest Mouse sounded like they didn’t have a home, like they operated entirely in a van and that their only respite between resorting to shit towns to fill up on gas was maybe seeing some beautiful mountains. A tune like “Long Distance Drunk” sounds built out of spare parts and rhythms that could be bashed out on the guitar cases in the backseat, with a lyric to match. “Hang it up, now or never/ Hang it up again,” as Brock sings, could be that the unnamed “long distance drunk” of the title couldn’t decide whether it was worth saving himself. In their capable, if cynical, hands, it sounds like a bunch of dudes trying to decide if infinite touring is their destiny, even with no reward at the end. They’re the rare band whose belated fluke hit actually sounds like it saved them; “Float On” is the reward that this album’s angry hopelessness and bleak humor needed. “Well, I’ll be damned,” Brock sings on the countryish closing tune, “Styrofoam Boots/ It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”. Now knowing what we know, that there’s a happy ending, it only makes the bright spots of The Lonesome Crowded West brighter. Maybe even the ugly ones, too.

Latest Stories