Good News for People Who Love Bad News
t’s not easy for bands to improve steadily with each album. Formulas get established, novelty diminishes, direction becomes confused. It is a truly special band that can tighten up and refine their sound while pressing on into new territory with each successive album. Spoon’s been doing it for over eight years now, OutKast arguably for even longer, while we’ll have to wait and see with Wilco’s new album, due out in a few months.
The most textbook example of this rare phenomenon, however, is Modest Mouse. Their first album, This is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, was boring, boring, boring—over an hour of interminable and destination-less road tripping with few signs along the way to give direction (“Head South,” “Dramamine”—still not enough). Next outing, The Lonesome Crowded West, probably holds the throne of Modest Mouse Fan Album of Choice by a bunch of people who evidently enjoy endless, flow-less, and annoyingly repetitious indie rock a whole lot more than I do. Still, the album held considerably more diversity than the truly impenetrable Drive, packing it with true attention grabbers (“Shit Luck,” “Lounge (Closing Time)”) and even one or two career highlights (“Doin’ the Cockroach,” eternal encore “Bankrupt on Selling”).
Still, it wasn’t until the odds and ends compilation Building Nothing out of Something that Modest Mouse, the Great Band, were unearthed. Having only 12 tracks helped considerably (not even an hour long—hallelujah!) but the multi-colored track listing was the real kicker—songs like “Workin’ on Leavin’ the Livin,’” “Interstate 8” and “All Nite Diner” were all miles ahead of anything on their previous albums. And then, four years, ago came The Moon and Antarctica, as much of an improvement over West as OK Computer was over The Bends. The music was uniformly excellent across the album, but the real jump over their earlier albums was in the cohesion—the sequencing of M&A was nothing short of brilliant, each song playing beautifully into the next, lyrically and musically, making the album one of those wonderful concept albums without any true concept—in other words, all of the benefits of a concept album without all that pretentious crap.
However, it’s now looking like maybe The Moon and Antarctica was a bit too perfect—it didn’t really leave Isaac Brock and friends much room for improvement. So rather than attempt to go up with the risk of falling down, Modest Mouse did, with Good News for People Who Love Bad News, what most bands in their position do—they stepped sideways. Gone is pretty much everything they’ve learned in the last eight years or so, ditching all the progress they’ve made in favor of just making another Modest Mouse record. The results, needless to say, are disappointing.
After a brief horn intro, Good News starts with the gorgeous “The World at Large”. A simultaneously sighing and sweeping track, the song finds the band in familiar and epic territory, in the glorious tradition of past ballads “Interstate 8” and “Bankrupt on Selling”. Even better is the next track, the advance single “Float On,” which is easily one of the best things the band has ever done. Brock’s usually instantly recognizable yelp sounds shockingly slurred and defeated in the verses, but retains its majesty for the insistent hope for the chorus, with one of the band’s finest guitar riffs and the surprisingly powerful refrain “all right, already, we’ll all float on”. So far, so good, right?
Well, only sort of. The two opening songs are both fantastic, but in actuality are a rather weak way to start an album. “The World at Large” simply isn’t an opener—for all its beauty it packs absolutely no punch, and would have been far better fit for the middle of the album. And “Float On,” with its affirmative power, doesn’t make much sense appearing at the beginning either—it would have been twice as powerful at the end of the album, or even as the closer. Still, there’s no mistaking the greatness of these songs, and the next track, “Ocean Breathes Salty,” keeps up the strike rate, although still sounding a bit ill-fitted for an album’s opening.
The first sign of things starting to go awry comes with the interlude “Dig Your Grave”—a twelve-second interlude of Isaac growling over some guitar that isn’t that bad in itself but is an unfortunate harbinger of things to come. On previous albums, with his nervous twitch and tendency for crooning verses and yelping the choruses, Isaac Brock had himself set out as the clear successor to The Pixies’ Frank Black, which made sense for the band’s update of the traditional indie rock sound The Pixies practically invented. But now Brock seems to fancy himself the next Tom Waits—a legacy that is considerably harder to swallow. This new fascination allows for “Dancehall,” an absolutely garbage track that would’ve permanently ruined the flow of even The Moon and Antarctica, and permeates the rest of the album, which is now replete with annoyingly obnoxious brass and irritatingly anachronistic banjo.
From there, it all starts to run together a bit, with songs like “Bukowski,” “The Devil’s Workday” and “Satan in a Coffin” adding nothing to the album except bumpiness and inconsistency. The album runs a mere 49 minutes—nearly a half-hour less than The Lonesome Crowded West—but you’d never know it with roadblocks like these, which make reaching the end of the album pretty damn tough. Brock’s new lyrical fascinations with Waits-ian topics death and the devil are actually quite earthbound and mundane compared with the suburban ennui of the first couple albums and the wondrous exploration of The Moon and Antarctica, and make an already tough album even tougher.
Which is really too bad, because stuck in between all the Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones are some pretty great songs—like “The View,” a fabulous excursion into near !!!-like dancepunk, complete with funk guitars and disco beats, while maintaining a healthy dose of melody and contemplation. Or the album closer, “The Good Times are Killing Me,” which if placed in the right context could’ve been absolutely heartbreaking, but placed next to these dirges just means phew, one more song and then the album’s over. It’s a sad state of affairs, indeed.
To expect Modest Mouse to one-up The Moon and Antarctica as they’ve one-upped all their previous albums would’ve been pretty damn unrealistic. And, to be fair, they’re not simply rehashing past glories, pushing out into new territory with no fear of returning to The Lonesome Crowded West. But it’s still hard not to be unsatisfied with Good News—an album that seems to want to pretend that all the mastery of sequencing and track selection they displayed with M&A never really happened. If they can’t find their way back, Modest Mouse’s sideways step might find them very well out of relevancy.