Modest Mouse - Tiny Cities Made of Ashes
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Modest Mouse was always going to Hell. That a subdued Isaac Brock found himself in Heaven in "Styrofoam Boots" was nothing but a wrong turn. The story of this band is of a constant search for sunnier, slicker routes to oblivion, and of a gradually refined debate about what to do on the way. When 2000's The Moon and Antarctica consolidated the band's backwoods rambles—earlier albums found and discarded song fragments with the restlessness of a forest-tramping eight-year-old—into something approaching pop songs, it drew the praise of those never willing to let Modest Mouse meander drunkenly through their skulls without losing that of those who laid out their minds like red carpets.
Four years later, the plump rhythms of Good News for People Who Love Bad News did less well with the purists, even though Brock still spent little time crooning and about as much screaming from beneath freeway underpasses. And Good News’ awareness of the concept of dancing hardly came unanticipated: look at "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes," a central moment of The Moon and Antarctica and the song from which it was best that the next phase of Modest Mouse's career be extrapolated.
Despite the beefing-up that usually comes with an Epic budget, the blackened groove of "Tiny Cities" is as indebted as any spindly guitar track to Modest Mouse's fondness for void. Save a kind of diseased hum behind the shouted chorus, there's little here but that malevolent beat, which stomps along unfazed by ambient rattling or the rare eyedrops of the guitar, and ushers Brock through the song in demonic lockstep. The song propels and is propelled in a way both Modest Mouse's music—all those rambling jam sessions—and its album titles—This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About—always strove for but never quite achieved, as if Brock and company had wandered for years on back roads without directions and only now found the highway; as if they'd just never realized that white-funk jitter would get them there faster than indie-rock clatter. Seven years later, it's a dichotomy they've taken to heart: the recent We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank has its clattering moments, but most of it pogos down the interstate like a trashier Talking Heads.
The interstate might have been their Grail, but Modest Mouse were never in love with it. Where Kerouac gazed into broken yellow lines and saw a kinetic Transcendentalism, Brock saw them gazing also into him; the road didn't deliver or redeem but deepened its rider's pessimism. While Brock's entropic bugaboos had always been central to his writing, "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" foretells decay like nothing in the canon. Brock explains his destiny in one of his better muttered punch lines—"I just got a message that said Hell has frozen over / I got a phone call from the Lord, saying 'Hey, boy, get a sweater'"—and everything here, particularly that calm declaration "we're going down the road / to tiny cities made of ashes," succinctly encompasses not only the prophecies of earlier albums but the vein-popping philosophizing Brock's been doing since.
Modest Mouse has for a while been quite sure of the despair with which the mighty shall someday look on our works. Occasionally this fatalism threatens to tip into a gimmick, but when Brock and the band are at their best it isn't only tragedy they worship but a glorious giving-over: the funny canine Rapture of "Wild Pack of Family Dogs," the freakish but cheerfully accepted good luck of "Float On," and "the dashboard melted but we still have the radio" all find temporary rallying-points amidst endless entropy.
"Tiny Cities" lacks this acceptance; it's built on panic and confusion. As the dead heartbeat divides into a shattered pitter-patter, Brock yelps for someone to tell him "a way a body could get away," and the most fun he can have on his plummet towards death is to be "drinking drinking drinking drinking / Coca-Coca-Cola," an incantation bearing rhythmic pleasure for the listener but less for Brock. The band's pessimism is unleavened; but then again, you have to understand where you are before you can feel good about it, and "Tiny Cities" is not only Modest Mouse's first firm X on history's map but the musical well from which their next two albums were drawn. That enormous beat thrummed beneath Good News and trampled all over We Were Dead; the band rode its reverberations to a Top 40 single and a #1 album—and, debatably, to a musical maturity twinned with a progression of philosophy.
As fond as I remain of the labyrinthine clatter of '90s Modest Mouse, I immediately concede to anyone who claims boredom; following those back roads requires a loyalty never demanded by the open lanes of the band's slicker incarnation. If I'm to be burnt away, a dance first—as Modest Mouse realized musically here and lyrically a little later. And there's ironic pleasure in the way Isaac Brock's certainty of destiny has delivered him more fans than ever. Doesn't matter if you're going to Hell; the better your ride, the more people are coming with you.