The summer between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college began with a thud; getting fired is embarrassing. But thanks to some disagreements with my bosses and an admittedly poor work ethic, that’s the spot I found myself in, three weeks into a job that was supposed to last the season.
I filled out whatever American Eagle or local grocery store application I could get my hands on, trying to find something, anything to get me by. The exercise proved pointless. I was leaving Cleveland for Athens, Ohio, in two months’ time. Hiring me didn’t make sense.
So I volunteered for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, cold-calling and canvasing and meeting people young and old, rich and poor and Black and White. There were middle-aged women who took time off from running Jenna Jameson’s official website to help Obama win Ohio and twenty-somethings with elbow-patched cardigans, thick-framed glasses and political aspirations, and college juniors looking to build up their resumes, and people like me, liberal in nature and with a lot of time to kill.
I smoked bad weed, drank Natural Light and played basketball and ultimate frisbee in my free time. I didn’t have a girlfriend or a fling or anything like that. I wanted one. It was a good, weird summer, eclectic and scatter-brained. It was also the first period in my life that I really started listening to Modest Mouse.
I’m sure that that isn’t a coincidence.
Rap will always be my first love, but I’ve yet to find an emcee capable of conveying the kind of existential funk that Isaac Brock and his band have been serving up since This Is A Long Drive For Somebody With Nothing To Talk About dropped in 1996. They rose from indie sweetheart to festival showcase thanks to “Float On” and 2004’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News, probably inspiring eye-rolls from diehards who hated seeing their favorite band sell out.
I didn’t really have a reason to listen to them. An aunt gave me a $30 Best Buy gift card for my 18th birthday at the start of the summer, and instead of buying a video game, I got lost in the music section, eventually settling on two CDs: Dem Franchise Boyz’ On Top Of Our Game and Modest Mouse’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. The former was a result of the radio brainwashing me into thinking that “Lean With It, Rock With It” was so good that I just needed a physical copy of the album*.
The latter was really a random purchase based on the fact that I was:
A. Wanting to branch out a bit,
B. Familiar with the Modest Mouse name, and
C. Kinda-sorta trying to impress my then-crush.
That was it.
It took a little while, but We Were Dead… grew on me, slowly but surely. That I even gave it enough chances to stick is a minor miracle; as patient as I currently am with music, I wasn’t as an 18-year-old. If it took more than two or three spins to understand a song, I was already retreating to my Eminem/Wu-Tang comfort zone.
But the album begins with “March Into The Sea,” a firecracker of an intro. I had to at least give it a chance. Brock opens the book with vitriol and bile: “If food needed pleasing you’d suck all the seasoning (suck it off)/Well treat me like disease, like the rats and the fleas/ah-ha-ha, ah-ha-ha.” Hissing his laughter through clenched teeth, Modest Mouse’s enigmatic lead had uncorked a bottle of that same sort of defiant energy that I had grown to admire in many of my favorite rappers. It wasn’t that I could completely relate to what was going on or what he was saying, because I rarely felt misogynistic and I didn’t go through any intense bouts of self-loathing.
But, holy shit. Isn’t this the guy who sang “Float On”? Is this band not about being happy and chill and all of that crap?
Nah. As I’d soon learn, they aren’t. Not even a little bit. There are plenty of sappy moments on We Were Dead…, but in general, it’s a scatter-brained affair, perfect for such a transitory summer. One minute I’d be rolling joints to “Fire It Up” (which isn’t explicitly about weed–it’s about a car–but 18-year-old AJ was just that typical), the next, getting frustrated at a girl I didn’t know, thanks be to “Spitting Venom,” the band’s somber take on an expired relationship (“I didn’t know you kept track, didn’t know there was a score/but it looks like you’re the winner, I ain’t gonna play no more”).
And then there were tracks that just perfectly encapsulated my bitter attitude towards my former employers. I held that grudge for a while (and still sort of do), and at the time, Brock knew exactly what to say: “If you say what to do, I know where not to start,” he flatly states in “Parting Of The Sensory”, a two-part track that juggles concepts macro and micro in nature — on a larger scale, the fact that we’re all going to die one day, and on a smaller scale, considering point A, who the f*ck is your boss to tell you anything? It’s an indie rock version of Kanye’s “Spaceship”: a critique on shitty employers, rough around the edges and doused with a thick coat of uninviting navy blue paint.
In a way, all of those moving parts–the ups and downs and preaching and partying–were exactly what I needed at the time.
I can’t think of any specific word that neatly sums up the summer of 2008, but I look back on it and generally feel happy. The same exact appraisal can be given to We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank. The two worked very well together.
* — Kinda like how I needed J-Kwon’s Hood Hop and Murphy Lee’s Murphy’s Law.