20 Years Ago: Modest Mouse Want a Simpler Life on ‘The Lonesome Crowded West’
The stretches of time surrounding the release of Modest Mouse's debut album could be better measured in mileage than in months.
The relentless touring that led up to 1996's This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, and the continued thankless van journeys that zig-zagged between two follow-up EPs, gave frontman Isaac Brock a fatigued cloud of resentment. But it wasn't the open road that demoralized Brock, but the sprawl of strip-mall sterility with which developers imposingly paved over it—displacing nature, as he saw it, with asylums of commerce and convenient parking. And when he convened with the remaining two-thirds of Modest Mouse's core, bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green, it was this cynical sense of encroachment that lent a particular seething character to Long Drive's unrestrained follow-up.
Released on Nov. 18, 1997, The Lonesome Crowded West wanders against the same backdrop as its predecessor, passing desolate landscapes, repetitious highway shields and winding mountainside roads. But whereas Long Drive traveled in the company of its own tortured thoughts, The Lonesome Crowded West saw Brock's worldview corrupted by materialism ("Polar Opposites," "Bankrupt on Selling") and an absurdist cast of (semi-)fictional characters ("Cowboy Dan," "Doin' the Cockroach").
“I had a lot of stuff going on in my mind that was just bothering me about strip malls and the paving of the west," Brock reflected in a 2012 Pitchfork-produced documentary about the album. His recollection wasn't exaggerated. A 1996 back issue of Seattle's alternative weekly The Stranger captures Brock professing his hatred for concrete (yes, concrete), reasoning bluntly that "people use it to build strip malls."
This idiosyncratic dread saw its reflection in Modest Mouse's still-growing audience even before the album's release. When the band first began to incorporate soon-to-be Lonesome Crowded West tracks into live shows, "Teeth Like God's Shoe Shine," the eventual album opener, was for a time informally referred to by fans as "Orange Julius" for its memorable chorus: "Let's all have another Orange Julius / Thick syrup standing in lines / The malls are the soon-to-be ghost towns / Well, so long, farewell, goodbye."
"Teeth Like God's Shoe Shine" is a perfect introduction to the unglued musical narrative Modest Mouse presents across the The Lonesome Crowded West's doomed geography. It foreshadows the acrobatic maneuvers between tempos and decibels, and the range of angular sonic elements, that characterizes the rest of the album. Lyrics depicting a feeling of suffocation in a mall food court delivered through Brock's anxious screeches completed the package.
It was this thoughtfully executed volatility that held the interest of Calvin Johnson, Beat Happening bandleader and founder of the indie landmark K Records. Johnson, who co-produced the album, believed in simply letting the tape roll and encouraging spontaneity. He would speak of his hands-off production approach in the Pitchfork documentary, explaining, "I just tried to stay out of the way [...] and let them have their interactions."
The product of one such "interaction" was the 10-minute-plus "Truckers Atlas," an artifact of the pre-GPS realities of tour life in which a protagonist makes his way across state lines only to sell his assortment of maps for other lifestyle indulgences. The track is an exhibition of the band's evolving musical chemistry, with the rhythm section of Green and Judy rounding out Brock's slithering guitar phrases. It also pulls off a mid-song about-face with impressive subtlety. Before one even has the chance to notice the gradual stylistic shift in process, the song is already unrecognizable from its original form halfway through.
Without Brock's wild-eyed lyricism, brutally graphic and darkly emotive, the songs of The Lonesome Crowded West might have been deprived of the album's unique poignancy. Brock approaches his songs concealing a sharpened wit with a tendency to self-mutilate. (Better with wit than with tangible objects, anyway.) An illustrative example is "Heart Cooks Brain," in which the singer laments by his emotions' veto over his sense of reason, singing, "On the way to God don't know / My brain's the burger and my heart's the coal." The metaphor is reintroduced and reshaped over the course of the song: "In this place that I call home / My brain's the cliff, and my heart's the bitter buffalo."
It's ironic, in hindsight, that the band who'd find fame in 2003 with a rally for optimism, "Float On," so graphically conjured the cynicism that haunts The Lonesome Crowded West. Even stranger is that it sparked a major-label bidding war over the band. A cursory review of 1997 modern rock radio hardly indicates room for the outsider sensibilities of Modest Mouse. And yet, in delivering one of the defining monuments of '90s indie rock, they cemented their role in indie's mainstream rise in the early '00s.
The urban sprawl at which Modest Mouse directed their middle-finger-salute with The Lonesome Crowded West has marched on to this day, perpetually invading Brock's unglamorous utopia of calmness and simplicity. And one shouldn't be fooled into thinking it can be stopped. But when the slow-motion ravage of time finally erases the last remaining waystation from our truckers atlases, The Lonesome Crowded West will serve as the companion guide for navigating long drives for people with too much to think about.