Saturday, March 31, 2007

Stealing Carbon: On the Relative Greatness of Modest Mouse

The way in which I broke up the posts may have made it sound like my main intention was to rip on Doyle, which it isn't -- only his misguided anti-MM argument. (Obviously spending that much time making fun of somebody means you have to like that person, or at least know them well enough to know they won't greet you with a swift kick in the nuts next time you see them. And Doyle's got a mean kicking foot since he got into soccer. He's best on set pieces.) So, Diesel, I still gots love for you. No homo. (I'm sorry and I know that's a reprehensible phrase, but I just can't resist using it. And it fits with my fire-spitting hip-hop theme thingy I've got going here.)

Moving along (mostly) from mocking Doyle to more meaningful pursuits, here’s why I think We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is great. This is going to be somewhat difficult to discuss, because it's a whole lot harder to explain why you think something's good than it is to say why it's bad.

I think Modest Mouse's last album, Good News..., was their worst. I further think a lot of people agree with me. If I remember correctly, my counterpart feels similarly. It got the lowest rating from Pitchfork of any full-length they'd released up to that point. (I'm discounting their review of Long Drive..., which is what a truly vapid piece of shit really looks like. He doesn't like the album because it's too long?) [also: lest you think I'm simply aping Pitchfork, they rated We Were Dead... even lower than Good News...] I disliked it because it felt uneven and predictable: the fast songs seemed conscientiously peppy, methodically upbeat. That's why I so detested (and continue to detest) "Dance Hall" -- a song I maintain is their worst. Same with "This Devil's Workday." They worked on only one level, as fast, catchy tracks to offset the slower ones. The lyrics were mostly unremarkable and often difficult to even discern. Those tracks -- and, to a lesser degree, songs like "One Chance" and "Satin in a Coffin," lacked what made earlier Modest Mouse songs so compelling: they weren't as complex as their slower, more meditative songs – they relied too much on repetitions of the chorus -- yet they felt too overproduced and polished to convey the raw energy of earlier uptempo tracks that did essentially the same thing, like "Head South" and "Breakthrough." Most of the songs on Good News were, to appropriate a metaphor I've beaten to death in creative writing workshops, one-trick ponies. "Float On" was an excellent, catchy, sticky sort of pop song -- I still like that song, despite the saturation -- and if any other band made it, I'd buy their album just to hear what else they had to say. But it didn't sound like Modest Mouse.

I’ll try to define what exactly MM does sound like in a bit. First let me finish with Good News. The slower tracks held their own, particularly “The World at Large” (their first tracks are almost invariably among the best on the album) and “Blame It on the Tetons.” I’m a sucker for strings, and both of those songs used them subtly and well.

(Speaking of strings, I just heard about this Israeli woman who plays “hip-hop violin.” Needless to say, I’m in love. More on this in another post, perhaps. I’m racking up the other posts I’m promising.)

But overall, Good News felt like the album of a band trying to channel its experimentations – more brass and strings, less unexpected changes in rhythm or mood mid-track – into a more predictable, and hence more marketable, product. They weren’t quite selling out, but it seemed like they were ready to.

I expected We Were Dead… to complete that shift. They’d recruited former Smiths (not Pixies, as I had previously thought) guitarist Johnny Marr and Shins frontman James Mercer, and I prepared myself for an album aping the latter’s slick, premeditated twee-pop. I figured Mercer would bring the same predictability and polish that makes me ambivalent toward the Shins and infuse it into my favorite band, whose two most endearing qualities, to me, had always been its rawness and unpredictability.

And that’s why Kid A was the first thing I thought of when I heard this album, sitting in the Zia parking lot at 12:10 AM the night it was released. Just like Radiohead, they’d expanded their previous experimentations – especially the strings and horns, but on a larger scale the willingness to incorporate entirely new sounds – while keeping their signature sound, which in MM’s case involves an ad-hoc, ass-pinching kind of brashness. Much like 2000-ish Radiohead, their sound hadn’t changed so much as evolved, in a way that surprised me even as I thought I should have seen it coming.

To bring this back to a more concrete level, I agree to a point that the four songs Diesel cites -- "Little Motel," "We've Got Everything," "Missed the Boat," and to a lesser degree, "Florida" -- suffer from the same one-notishness for which I earlier criticized Good News. I’m assuming that’s what makes them sound adult alternativey to him, and indeed I had a similar reaction, especially on first listen.

But Modest Mouse hasn’t gone adult alternative. Another song proves that, and further suggests that they may never do so. My favorite song on the album, “Parting of the Sensory.”

The song begins slowly, with only an acoustic guitar and drums backing Brock's barely-sung lyrics. It's actually only one repeated guitar line and a similarly repeated bass kick, along with what sounds like a rim shot or possibly a wood block (given MM’s penchant for using unconventional objects as instruments, it could be just about anything). A sample of the lyrics:

There's no work in walking in to fuel the talk
I would grab my shoes and then away I'd walk
Through all the stubborn beauty I'd start at the dawn
Until the sun had fully stopped
Never walking away from
Just a way to pull apart
Dehydrate back into minerals
A life long walk to the same exact spot

That's the opening verse. As usual with MM, the lyrics don't make any sense. Brock's lyrics have always sounded like those of an idiot savant, somebody who sees some sort of meaningful connection between his words that the rest of us can't. It's another reason many people resist MM's music (and another reason for the Lou Reed comparison); what strikes me as brilliance strikes others as pretentious and obtuse, or just plain stupid and nonsensical. It's worth noting that at least Brock never claimed to be a poet -- not like, say, Diesel's boy Jeff Tweedy, he of the poetry book and interviews in writer magazines -- and yet he manages to do what poetry is supposed to do, I think, which is to convey something, a mood or moment or theme, through non-literal language, imagistically or via suggestion. (I'm not sure many modern poets would agree with that -- most poems I read are either far too obvious or consist of abstract streams of language purposefully designed to prohibit any meaningful association, in hopes of being considered brilliant -- which is a primary reason why contemporary poetry grows less and less relevant. In contrast, I would argue that you can see the associations and themes in Brock’s lyrics, you just have to try, and many people aren’t willing.)

For example, in the above passage you don't get a concrete sense of anything happening. The "would" in the second line actually makes it all hypothetical, a suggested plan of action. You don't know what the talk is about, who he's talking to, where he is, who he is, etc. Yet you do get a string of relatively common images or themes: separation/dissociation (walking away, pulling apart), death or the ending of something (going back to minerals, the sun stopping, the last line's "same exact spot," which is, presumably, death). The life-as-a-journey metaphor, especially, seems familiar. It's the stuff of adult alternative songs: breakups, partings, vague senses of sadness.

But -- and this is why MM is absolutely not adult alternative -- the song grows more complex from there. Whereas an adult alternative song would be content hammering that same note for three-and-a-half minutes, talking about the sadness of a relationship and then offering a predictable redemption/solution/plea, Isaac Brock turns the whole fucking song on its head a minute in, right after the first chorus, when the guitar speeds up, a sinister violin comes in, and what sounds like the speaker's evil twin interrupts the song to ask:

"Who the hell made you the boss?"

The words stretch taut with anger, maybe even hatred. Then a call-and-response sequence begins, reinforcing this idea of a split consciousness because both are unmistakably Brock's voice: whereas the chorus in "Florida" relies largely on juxtaposing Brock's hoarse croak with Mercer's sugary-shrill response, this song is all Brock's (and, thankfully, so is this band, even with Marr and Mercer). You can tell by the way he shifts effortlessly from resignation to anger, from victim to villain. That's maybe the thing I love most about this band: in its best moments, it offers up a triumphant brand of cynicism, a hope made more genuine by the fact that it's obviously been tempered by astute observance of reality, by experience. A refusal to lie or delude. I posted recently on my blog, I think -- it may have been one of the deleted posts -- about something I recently read that said the mark of good writing is that it refuses to turn its back on the dark side of humanity; that it examines the night in order to better appreciate the dawn. I love that sentiment and heartily believe it. Adult alternative doesn't do that; adult alternative, like genre fiction, placates and reassures the reader/listener that life can be something other than it is. Adult alternative is dishonest. Modest Mouse isn't, not usually, and never for very long.

And if you want more proof of that, stick with the same song for a few more minutes, as the electric guitar comes in and the vocals distort and he starts swearing and the drums accelerate into gunshots and the fiddle comes back (another thing I love about this band: their songs grow more and more complex as they go along -- the horn that comes in at the end of "Spitting Venom" is just as fantastic) and finally everything stops but Brock and the odd clacking you can't quite place and he's screaming like a man on fire. If you're like me, you won't know what he's saying for the first few listens, instead appreciating the unsettling rhythm and strange appeal of hearing his own distorted voice responding to him, like a demon yelling out of Hell to a dying man. And then at some point you'll realize why that metaphor fits: because this is what he's saying:

"Someday you will die somehow and something's gonna steal your carbon."

You explain to me, Diesel, how an adult alternative band would ever have a line like that. Not even your boy Tweedy could pull that off -- he'd sing something cynical in a pretty voice and savor his own brilliance and irony. Brock bludgeons you with it, to the point of stripping away everything else -- all the music save for a harsh percussion that magnifies his words more than silence would -- until all you're listening to is a tortured voice that says you're going to die.

And that, my misguided friend, is incredible. It stretches credulity that the No. 1 band in the country is doing it with lines like that. People don't like to be reminded of their own mortality; the essential purpose of most pop culture, including adult alternative, is to avoid having to consider it. Isaac Brock doesn't want to let you, and you have half a brain in your head, the barest shred of taste or appreciation of honesty, you like him for it. He's not even just talking about death -- he only starts with death. He's commenting on consumption and the death it necessitates, about being erased from the earth, having the stuff of your very body stolen by another organism. No other band in rock, or at least none of their stature, discusses that kind of thing.

Not to mention how great the line itself is. Listen to the rhythm of that sentence, the way all sixteen syllables are trochaic, the way it rises in escalating vowels until the climactic harsh consonants, the c and the b (fricatives? I forget the linguistic term...). The way that rise parallels the dread that builds as the sentiment grows more and more cynical. The form fits the content, reinforces it, makes the perfect medium for the message: that's the mark of artistic brilliance. And you're not going to find that in fucking Wilco, whose attempts at experimentation have produced more bombs than Raytheon. ("Spiders (Kidsmoke)" makes "Fire It Up" sound like something off of Highway 61 Revisited.)

And they end the song with a literal gasp. Just a voice, gasping for air. Listen to it, it’s indelible. No other band could make that song.

That’s why I love Modest Mouse – those levels of greatness, the complexity of their songs and message, the manic-depressiveness of their music, half shouts and half whispers, cynical and hateful and beautiful in the same gasping breath. They remind you that you’re alone and slowly dying and they make you like them for it, and they somehow give you hope, and make you feel better, and make you want to tell people to fuck off, and make you want to listen more. Oh, forget the second person – they make me feel that way. No other band has ever done that: not Nirvana, the only band I ever worshipped; not even the Verve, whose Urban Hymns showed me that music could be extrasensory, something you don’t just hear or even feel but experience, perceive, remember, a part of your consciousness, a truth that helps reveal the world. That album did what great books do.

I don’t like this album quite that much. This band, yes, absolutely. I think they’re the best band in rock music right now, definitely the best American one. And I love this album; it’s early, but I’d pencil it in as album of the year. But I suspect it will never be an all-time great, simply because it lacks a thesis statement. That’s why it reminds me of Kid A, but not quite OK Computer, not quite Nevermind, and probably not quite even a YHF, which despite its lack of a single great song does cohere remarkably well, and does seem to be saying something. I don’t even know whether I think it’s MM’s best album; I’ll have to see how it ages, and they’ve made some pretty goddamned good albums. (At various points in the last two years, Long Drive…, The Lonesome Crowded West, and The Moon and Antarctica have all been my favorite.)

But it’s still a great album, legitimately great, better than anything else out there right now – including Wilco, who has done nothing very noteworthy in the last five years (and further, has produced exactly one remarkable album, albeit truly remarkable -- this Wilco/MM debate is its own post) -- and it sure as shit ain’t adult alternative.

To wrap things up, Diesel, your Pedro argument seems to me indicative of the “Everything Sucks Era,” to perhaps ironically cite Bill Simmons, a person I’ve often accused of doing the same thing you accuse MM of doing: stagnating artistically, declining into predictable mediocrity, playing out the string, whatever. That reaction is too easy and comes too quickly anymore; it’s harder to try to access something, to remain open to experimentation, and to possibly accept that an artist who is very good has actually gotten even better. But that’s what I encourage you to do with Modest Mouse, because that’s what I believe has happened. And I just explained why.

Maybe our readers are wondering why I've spent so much time and energy writing a half-billion words on Modest Mouse and why Doyle's wrong. Well, it's because I love this band and this album so much that I might actually try to turn portions of this post into an essay, not like a crappy essay for a class but a real essay, one of those things they publish in literary journals. That’s how I roll when it comes to Modest Mouse, so if you want to take a shot at them, Diesel, you'd better come correcter than that. I know you were born in Canada and so think that entitles you to claim expertise on adult alternative (and it probably does). But life is harsh. Hug me, don't reject me, or make posts to disrespect Modest Mouse, blatant or indirectly. Ill will rest in peace. I'm out.

(Fun fact: these last two posts combined are over 5,000 words long. That’s approximately 16-20 pages of writing, the same length as an average short story. I spent more than six hours writing them. I’m deranged.)


Bryan Rosenbaum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryan Rosenbaum said...

(sorry...misspelled the Israeli girl's name in the previous entry, God forbid)

You're deranged? I just read 5,000-6,000 words about an album I haven't heard from a band I know one song from.

You just heard about Miri Ben-Ari, the hip-hop violinist? She's on the Workout song on the first Kanye album, and besides an appearance on a crappy Scarface and Anthony Hamilton collab, hasn't been heard of since.