Modest Mouse is one of rock’s last remaining stadium bands, the kind that has managed to find that elusive combination of critical and commercial success. And while a rumored sixth studio album is , it’s never too early to get acquainted.
If there’s an over-arching theme in Mouse’s career, it’s an existential one. The subject matter they tackle is grand in scope: the vast, sweeping desert-scape of the American West (and the shame that Manifest Destiny ultimately caused it); the eerie, vacant reaches of outer space; and the cold, rolling waves of the ocean. The notes that lead singer Isaac Brock and his Washington-born collective hit are eerie, their melodies worthy of debate. All peppered with the same question: how important are we, really?
The first song from the band’s first studio album. Melodic and just straight-up zany in the best possible way, the track is something of an ode to motion sickness medication that can leave the user with lucid side-effects. But feel free to scrap that interpretation if you’d like; as is the case with most Modest Mouse songs, the guitar chords and distant vocals are going to resonate with everybody a bit differently.
2. “Cowboy Dan”
Let’s start this with a sample of the lyrics:
“Well, Cowboy Dan’s a major player in the cowboy scene
He goes to the reservation drinks and gets mean
He drove the desert, fired his rifle in the sky
And says, ‘God if I have to die you will have to die'”
Modest Mouse have always shown a knack for telling stories; in this case, they spotlight one of the most memorable fictional characters that music has ever birthed, a frustrated, city-slicker-hating countryman yearning for a period in time that, for all intents and purposes, is gone. Haunting, but in an incredibly defiant way that makes you root for our antagonistic hero.
3. “Trailer Trash”
A tribute to singer Isaac Brock’s humble (re: impoverished) beginnings. The imagery here (“eating snowflakes with plastic forks”), juxtaposed with the insecurity that comes with the time period (“Goddamn I hope I pass high school”), creates the kind of touchingly innocent portrayal of Brock that’ll make you better understand the way he carries himself.
4. “Gravity Rides Everything”
A common theme of the band’s magnum opus The Moon And Antarctica is the sheer f*cking vastness of the universe and how small and insecure people really are and should be. But in certain cases, that’s a good thing. If we don’t really have a say in anything, “Gravity Rides Everything” argues we should just chill and let the universe take care of it. In many ways, this haunting and beautiful track is the most optimistic you’ll ever hear Modest Mouse.
5. “Dark Center Of The Universe”
Those happy, somewhat-existential-but-still-comforting thoughts that sprung up from “Gravity Rides Everything” kind of dissipate with “Dark Center of the Universe.” As we learned with “Gravity…” there’s little that we actually have control over, despite what we want to believe. And, because of that, the universe/powers that be might just send us on a collision course towards tragedy. Modest Mouse’s solution, as it always seems to be, includes a defiant attitude and a middle finger: “Well, it took a lot of work to be the ass that I am/ And I’m real damn sure that anyone can equally, easily fuck you over.”
6. “Paper Thin Walls”
One of the few The Moon And Antarctica songs that ditches existential themes for more psychological ones, the meaning of “Paper Thin Walls” is kind of drowned out by how damn catchy the song is. We can debate the meaning – lack of privacy, everybody hates everything – but let’s just turn our brains off and enjoy the melodic guitar chords.
7. “Float On”
A no-brainer. To date, “Float On” is the tune that put Modest Mouse on pop culture’s radar. Grammy-nominated, Billboard-conquering, the track is a bit more positive than the vast majority of Mouse’s typically dark catalog. Good to listen to when you’re navigating tough real-world problems…Or Mouse’s typically dark catalog.
8. “Ocean Breathes Salty”
More existential pondering set to an incredibly catchy, thematic backdrop. Swapping the cold, limitless arms of outer space for the cold, limitless arms of the ocean, the underlying theme that Modest Mouse treads on here isn’t exactly new territory for them. What makes “Ocean Breathes Salty” such an important, memorable track is that it just sounds really good, thanks in large part to one of the best hooks that the band has produced. Definitely not one of those tracks that you have to put effort into liking and singing.
9. “The Good Times Are Killing Me”
It isn’t exactly a secret that Isaac Brock and co. have had their drug stories (“Inhalants and meth were probably the two things that totally f*cking screwed me out of some brain cells,” the lead singer said in a 2004 ). “The Good Times Are Killing Me” is a very literal account of such acts. Anybody who can say that they’ve gotten drunk or high (or something a bit heavier) can relate on some level.
10. “Missed The Boat”
“Missed The Boat” encapsulates the later part of Modest Mouse’s career perfectly: more accessible and far away from their earlier, darker years. Still incredibly cinematic in the images it conjures, it’s a bit harder to find a literal translation that everybody can agree on. Listen to the melody alone and it seems redemptive in its own way. But listen to the lyrics (“Oh, and I laugh all the way to hell/Saying yes, this is a fine promotion/Oh, and I laugh all the way to hell”) and you’ll probably subscribe to a different take.