Mandatory disclaimer: these are simply my favorites. I make no claim about the objective list of their ‘best’ songs. I can only tell you what I like. Regular readers will not be surprised to see their work from the 90s represented a lot more than the stuff since. I lost my heart to Lonesome Crowded West, and while the stuff since then is plenty good, I will always go back to my true love…
10. Night on the Sun (Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks)
Isaac’s voice is in fine form – for all the lispiness the guy really could sing back in the day. Particularly on the “hopelessly hopeless, I hope so…for you” bit. But this song makes the list for the guitar work. It builds up languidly, but insistently. But then you get the instrumental section starting at about 3 minutes where it rings like the bells of God.
9. Doin’ the Cockroach (Lonesome Crowded West)
God this song is messy. The guitar starts out woozy and Isaac is at his mumbly/angry best. And then there are those drums, like cannon-fire. And the pace picks up and things start to catch on fire. But this song makes my top 10 almost entirely for the guitar in the bit that starts around 2:30. I’ve often thought of Modest Mouse in this period as playing a guitar like a serrated blade, and this is just about the perfect example.
8. Neverending Math Equation (Building Nothing Out of Something)
There’s something beautiful and terrible about the notion of life being structured by the cold inhumanity of equations, the animal necessity of survival being built into our very nature, the way this overwhelms the pretense of free will and individual decision. The cold loneliness. And yet, this is simultaneous with the bare animality of existence – the crude bodily reality that “the plants and the animals eat each other.”
7. Cowboy Dan (Lonesome Crowded West)
This is Modest Mouse at their most desolate. The slow-burning frustration, the anger, the deep sense of loss. He didn’t move to the city, the city moved to him. So he goes to the desert, fires his rifle in the sky, says “God if I have to die, you will have to die.” The crashing cymbals, the piercing guitar note. And yet, there’s the interlude…where we’re just standing in the tall grass “thinking nothing.” It’s not a resolution, or even really an escape. But it is a moment of temporary solitude. There’s no meaning in it, but that’s kind of the point. In response to the aching, sullen, slow catastrophe of the modern world, thinking nothing at all is the only possible response.
6. Broke (Building Nothing Out of Something)
It opens with 30 seconds of just the guitar, dour yet engaging. When Isaac’s voice enters, it is eerie and achingly sad. It tells the tale of self-recrimination and a life slowly unraveling. It’s a slow descent, spiraling downward until about two minutes in, when the pace picks up and moves faster, faster, faster, until it’s one glorious mess. The drums are flailing about, the guitar is dancing, the lyrics trip over themselves trying to fit into the little bit of time and space provided for them until it all melds together into a series of riffs that hit you like gunfire. And then, WHAM, it’s over. I can’t deal with rollercoasters, mostly because I’m terrified of heights, but this song sort of makes me understand the appeal. The slow climb, the little bit of panic in the back of your mind, and then the rush.
5. So Much Beauty in Dirt (Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks)
One minute and twenty-four seconds long, and it’s exactly the right length. It’s about those moments, gone before you know it, but perfect in themselves. The refrain “so much beauty it could make you cry” is repeated a number of times, emphasizing that life is perfect in all its imperfections. The randomness, the pain, the mistakes, and the stupidity, all of these things are intermixed with the beauty, the wonder, the silliness, and the joy.
Frankly, I find this song to be far more optimistic, and encouraging, than much more explicitly hopeful songs. Perfect moments are perfect only because we all know they must end. Similarly, we all know that suffering is a part of life, but what makes it acceptable is the realization that it is transitory, ephemeral. When we let pain wash over us, it cannot last – the pure moments burst forth no matter the circumstances, if we let them. It is only when we fixate on the pain that it haunts us.
These perfect moments can happen anywhere. I find them often in music, but it can be as simple as breathing a deep breath of clean, fresh air. It can be saying goodbye to a friend. It can be a tear shed for someone that you’ve hurt. It can even be a moment of pain or sadness. What makes these moments perfect is not that they are “good” but rather that they are beautiful. And beauty is a perilous thing, as Sam Gamgee would be happy to tell us:
‘The Lady of Lórien! Galadriel!’ cried Sam. `You should see her indeed you should, sir. I am only a hobbit, and gardening’s my job at home, sir, if you understand me, and I’m not much good at poetry — not at making it: a bit of a comic rhyme, perhaps. now and again, you know, but not real poetry — so I can’t tell you what I mean. It ought to be sung. You’d have to get Strider, Aragorn that is, or old Mr. Bilbo, for that. But I wish I could make a song about her. Beautiful she is, sir! Lovely! Sometimes like a great tree in flower, sometimes like a white daffadowndilly, small and slender like. Hard as di’monds, soft as moonlight. Warm as sunlight, cold as frost in the stars. Proud and far-off as a snow-mountain, and as merry as any lass I ever saw with daisies in her hair in springtime. But that’s a lot o’ nonsense, and all wide of my mark.’
‘Then she must be lovely indeed,’ said Faramir. ‘Perilously fair.’
‘I don’t know about perilous,’ said Sam. ‘It strikes me that folk takes their peril with them into Lórien, and finds it there because they’ve brought it. But perhaps you could call her perilous, because she’s so strong in herself. You, you could dash yourself to pieces on her, like a ship on a rock; or drownd yourself, like a hobbit in a river. But neither rock nor river would be to blame.’
4. Third Planet (The Moon and Antarctica)
“Everything that keeps us together is falling apart.” In seven words, the zeitgeist of an era is summed up, setting the stage for a record that will delve deeply into our sense of isolation. It taps into the inescapable feeling that, even as the world grows smaller, the things which helped us feel close to one another are fracturing.
3. Float On (Good News For People Who Love Bad News)
This song marks a turning point. Before this, the defining feature of the band seemed to be the overwhelming force of loneliness that comes from living within an incomprehensible universe. It wasn’t ever quite phrased in these terms, but I would suggest they were primarily concerned with the lightness of existence, the way even the most durable things are perpetually at risk of fading away into nothing. So here, we find them looking at this all in a new way. If we are nothing but leaves on the wind, if life moves on a plan beyond our comprehension, maybe there’s something to be said for simply floating along with it.
I’m sad to say that the band finding a bit of peace led to them producing music that matters a whole lot less to me. Nothing after “Float On” has ever hit me with nearly the force of Lonesome Crowded West. But here, just as they are starting to make the turn, they hit one of their single finest notes.
2. Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine (Lonesome Crowded West)
Writing about this song feels impossible. It’s so huge and violent and beautiful and far beyond the scope of articulation. It’s a force of nature. It’s the end of the world. It’s…something more.
Unlike some guitar bands who do their damage with noise, Modest Mouse are something else. Not that they can’t get loud. But at their most devastating, the thing that truly takes you apart is the loneliness, the isolation, the spaces in between the notes. There’s an artful looseness to it – it kept you from ever identifying a center.
And it was never better expressed than on this song. There’s the piece around 3:00 (Take ‘em all for the long ride…) which follows close on the heels of the ‘chorus’ which feels to me like it comes via a sort of jangly saunter. Or the absolute apocalypse at 5:18, when the entire world gets torn down around you. And bizarrely, this is immediately preceded by a quiet moment that feels like the aftermath of some great destruction. It’s somehow perfect: the eruption is in some way caused by its own effects.
Hidden somewhere in this is true understanding. I know you better than you know yourself they seem to say. You in all your madness and confusion. This is not a comforting feeling but it is right.
1. Trailer Trash (Lonesome Crowded West)
My favorite Modest Mouse song, and the inspiration for the name of this blog. It’s about a life that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, when you have to wonder if maybe the reason things haven’t turned out quite right is your own damn fault, not because of anything out there. I don’t find it to be a hopeless song. Lines like “Taking heartache with hard work / Goddamn I am such a jerk / I can’t do anything” suggest a deep-seated weariness, a fear that life will never be anything more than it is in this moment. And a bit of self-loathing. He sees himself and is disgusted with his inability to change.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. I like to believe that it’s a warning more than a prophecy. The song contains one extended verse which bleeds into something of a chorus, and is then repeated. Over this, the pace slows and while Isaac initially sounds emotional, maybe even a little tortured, by the end, he is just speaking the lyrics over a drum beat, and the guitars have almost disappeared. You can almost feel the burden of life pressing down. Then, however, the prettiness and weariness of the first half explode into the chaos of the second half. The drums go crazy, and the guitar riff dances around.
There are no lyrics, just the commotion of the music. All weariness is forgotten, and if you’re not quite sure where things are going, you do know that it is exciting. I like to think that’s sort of how life works. Frustration, fear of stagnation, and discontentment can be shattered. It’s a back-and-forth thing, but there’s still some reason to hope that you can learn from your mistakes and be a better person. I’d like to believe that.
11. Polar Opposites (Lonesome Crowded West)
12. Spitting Venom (We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank)
13. Other People’s Lives (Building Nothing Out of Something)
14. Bankrupt on Selling (Lonesome Crowded West)
15. The World at Large (Good News For People Who Love Bad News)