Modest Mouse’s ‘The Moon & Antarctica’ Shaped 21st Century Indie Rock

There’s something about one century concluding and another beginning that makes artists feel extra ambitious. As the end of the ’90s loomed, it became de rigueur for forward-thinking indie and alternative rock bands to make their grand studio-obsessed masterpieces. It was a time when the very idea of rock music itself was in the process of being dismantled, so it could be put back together as an entirely new thing for an entirely new millennium.

In 1999, acid-laced Oklahoma psych-rock band The Flaming Lips produced The Soft Bulletin, ditching their fuzzy guitars in favor of highly orchestrated, Pet Sounds-inspired melancholy pop. The following year, Radiohead emerged from a studio hibernation that lasted for more than a year with a strange, defiantly anti-rock LP called Kid A that Thom Yorke claimed was like “getting out an eraser and starting again.” Also in 2000, bands like Sigur Ros and Godspeed You! Black Emperor used rock instrumentation to create vast ambient soundscapes that might stretch on for more than 20 minutes. By the end of that year, Wilco would begin work on their own deconstructionist, “experimental” masterwork, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, whose tortured creation story would nearly become as beloved as the album itself.

And then there was Modest Mouse, whose strange and staggering third album, The Moon & Antarctica turns 20 this week. Along with Radiohead, Modest Mouse is the most successful of these turn-of-the-century bands, achieving a level of popularity that included a genuine hit song, “Float On,” which was the centerpiece of 2004’s platinum-selling Good News For People Who Love Bad News. Unlike many of their ’90s indie peers — including Pavement, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Built To Spill — Modest Mouse survived and thrived in the aughts, hitting the decade’s indie wave perfectly with the right single, adding scores of casual fans to a solid base of obsessive listeners.

In that sense, The Moon & Antarctica is a crucial pivot point not just for the band but for indie music overall. If Modest Mouse’s early albums helped to define the boilerplate sound of ’90s indie rock — chunky guitars, a loose and bombastic rhythm section, shout-y vocals, wry and often insightful lyrics — The Moon & Antarctica paved the way for what indie became in the 21st century. Rather than present three dudes bashing away sweatily just like they did on stage, this album was elegant and impeccably crafted, seamlessly integrating elements of folk, country, psychedelia, disco, and orchestral music. But these diverse elements counterintuitively made Modest Mouse sound (especially in retrospect) more like a “normal” rock band, smoothing out their rough edges and sweetening their most acidic attributes, a process that was finalized on the blockbuster Good News.

It’s also a record that helped to put to bed many of the rote arguments that were endemic to ’90s indie. As Modest Mouse’s first release after leaving the indie label Up and signing with the corporate behemoth Epic, The Moon & Antarctica was framed by the music press as a potential “sell out” move. And yet the album was ultimately one of their most acclaimed works, and in time the anxiety about Modest Mouse being adversely affected by signing with a major label would come to be viewed as a canard from a bygone century. Just four years later, contestants were singing “Float On” on American Idol. Anyone who pointed out that the infectiously airy riff from that song sounds like U2 playing Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” was bound to come off as a hipster scold. In their own small way, Modest Mouse had changed the world.

When Modest Mouse first emerged in the late ’90s as seemingly overnight underground sensations, they had the benefit of deep mythology centered on their mercurial singer, guitarist, and songwriter, Isaac Brock. Barely out of high school at the time, he had already experienced a lifetime’s worth of outsider weirdness.

The outlines of his biography are already well-known to Modest Mouse fans: Born in 1975, Brock spent his early years in Montana and Oregon, and was shaped by spending his formative years in a Christian religious sect called the Grace Gospel Church that encouraged even the youngest members to speak in tongues. His family also spent a few years living in a trailer park. By age 11, he relocated with his mother and sister to Issaquah, Washington, a community near Seattle, where his mom eventually remarried. As for young Isaac, he took up in a shed next to his parent’s home, which is where he learned how to play guitar. In time, it would become Modest Mouse’s first rehearsal space.

What makes this origin story more that just mere trivia is that Modest Mouse’s early albums and EPs seem to derive directly from the milieu of Brock’s life. The signature LP of this period, 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West, is an incredible snapshot of the weird old Gummo America that was in the process of disappearing with the rest of the 20th century. In songs like “Trailer Trash,” “Truckers Atlas,” and “Cowboy Dan,” Brock writes evocatively about backwoods eccentrics without sentiment or judgment, giving them their due as iconoclasts without denying their menace or profound sense of desolation.

Brock has said the album was a reaction against seeing his hometown get “mall-fucked” by encroaching gentrification brought on by the emerging tech industry in the Pacific Northwest. This “paving of the west” would eventually homogenize the entire country, which makes The Lonesome Crowded West feel prescient in the same way that OK Computer is about the digital totalitarianism of the internet. It’s also, like OK Computer, an unabashedly BIG guitar-rock record, nearly maxing out the capacity of a compact disc at 74 minutes.

For Kid A, Radiohead opted to renounce the BIG guitar-rock-ness of OK Computer, in favor of something far more claustrophobic and introverted. While their musical approach was otherwise radically different — they couldn’t help but sound maximalist no matter their change in direction — Modest Mouse also felt compelled to gaze inward on The Moon & Antarctica, an instinct that seems entirely in line with the times. At the start of this new era, everybody (but especially rock bands) had to figure how, or even if, they could find a way to be in the new era.

Crucially, this reimagining of Modest Mouse meant tamping down — if not outright jettisoning — the most abrasive, punk-oriented aspects of their music. The Lonesome Crowded West is defined by its furiously animated choogle, a willful and aggressive sloppiness that was in line with the lo-fi, defiantly unprofessional ethos of that era’s indie rock. It’s a very hot record, whereas The Moon & Antarctica is decidedly chillier, like the other “ambitious” indie and alternative touchstones of the time. Just as their contemporaries were backing away from heavy riffs and boisterous rhythm sections, Modest Mouse made no effort to hide that they were now playing in the majors. The Moon & Antarctica was made with a big-label budget, and it sounds like it. The strummy sunniness of a track like “Gravity Rides Everything” belies the existential pondering of the lyrics. It also points to the bands that would become Modest Mouse’s new contemporaries by the time “Float On” broke big, pop groups like The Shins and Death Cab For Cutie who had little in common with the scrappier bands that Modest Mouse originally came up with in the ’90s.

The darkness on The Moon & Antarctica is reserved for the words, which are very dark indeed. Religious imagery had long been part of Brock’s songs, which is unsurprising given the rich well of material from his fundamentalist childhood. But these themes really come to the forefront on The Moon & Antarctica, which unfolds as a series of parables in which the protagonist is caught in a spiritual battle between heaven (the moon) and hell (Antarctica) that in the end will not be won by the good guys. (Not to belabor the Kid A comparisons, but The Moon & Antarctica might be an even more pessimistic “dystopia” record.)

Recorded in Chicago over the course of five months in 1999, from mid-summer to late fall, The Moon & Antarctica has a similar seasonal arc, starting out relatively bright before turning dimmer and colder. The most famous anecdote from the making of The Moon & Antarctica is about how Brock broke his jaw one night while out drinking, when he was jumped by some neighborhood mooks. His jaw had to be wired shut for weeks, which obviously made it impossible to sing. (Later, before an appearance at Coachella, he supposedly removed the wires himself with pliers and a bottle of whiskey for anesthesia.) Brock also had a shattered reputation in light of a rape accusation in 1999; while he was never arrested or charged, the allegation became a permanent part of Modest Mouse’s media profiles forever after.

While Brock often comes off as sarcastic and even goofy in his interviews, his lyrics on The Moon & Antarctica are reflective self-interrogations that frequently resolve as self-lacerations. The lilting opening track, “3rd Planet,” introduces a recurring motif on the record: “Everything that keeps me together is falling apart,” he spits. “I’ve got this thing that I consider my only art of fucking people over.” Later, on the searing “Dark Center Of The Universe,” he once again sings about how “I’m real damn sure that anyone can equally easily fuck you over.”

On that track, Modest Mouse sounds most like their old selves, which makes it an exception on The Moon & Antarctica. The funky disco rhythms of “Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes” and the wildly off-kilter post-rock psych of “A Different City” are more where this album is at sonically. But the vibrance of the music frequently belies what is one of the bleakest albums to be released be a major-label band in the past two decades. How we treat each other, and the toll those transgressions take on our own souls, weighs heavily on this record.

I tend to remember the first five or six songs most vividly whenever I think about The Moon & Antarctica. So I was surprised upon revisiting the album recently by how affected I was by the back half of the album, starting with the centerpiece nine-minute epic, “The Stars Are Projectors,” in which Brock asks pointedly, “Was there a need for creation?” Like most everyone else, I’ve been in a dark frame of mind lately concerning the state of humanity, and perhaps more receptive than usual to songs that question whether we truly deserve to exist at all. But The Moon & Antarctica takes that despair one step further by arguing forcefully, and persuasively, that we most definitely do not.

The other night I watched footage of police beating protestors in some American city while listening to the most disturbing track from The Moon & Antarctica, “Wild Packs Of Family Dogs.” It opens like another dispatch from Gummo America, only the landscape has moved beyond trailer parks to full-blown apocalypse. “My mother’s cryin’ blood dust now / My dad he quit his job today, well I guess he was fired but that’s OK / And I’m sittin’ outside my mudlake, waiting for the pack to take me away.” A few songs later, “I Came As A Rat” came on, and it was as if Mephistopheles himself was seated next to me as I recoiled in horror from his televised handiwork:

I came as ice, I came as a whore
I came as advice that came too short
I came as gold, I came as crap
I came clean and I came as a Rat
It takes a long time, but God dies too
But not before he’ll stick it to you

The Moon & Antarctica ends with “What People Are Made Of,” one of the most anti-human songs I’ve ever heard. Brock again has assumed his devil persona, and decides that people and their hollowed-out souls aren’t worth the effort. “The one thing you taught me ‘bout human beings was this / They ain’t made of nothin’ but water and shit.” It’s a brutal song set to the album’s most brutal music. In my most despairing moments lately, it has rung truer than I would like. But even if it is true, it ultimately means that we’re all the same, and can only be redeemed by each other.

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