Treble 100: No. 97, Modest Mouse – The Lonesome Crowded West

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Modest Mouse Lonesome Crowded West

There’s a telling moment in Pitchfork’s making-of documentary—footage from a year before the album’s release. Brock, in a button-down with a cigarette, hints that fans can expect more of a Bob Dylan influence on the upcoming record: “I’ve been biting his style pretty good.”

As it turned out, he overstated the case a bit; The Lonesome Crowded West is no Dylan imitation. But like him, Brock swings on a pendulum from listless to frenzied, head in the clouds. He grafts raw emotions into caustic composites of American life—vaguely cartoonish and often sarcastic, sometimes empty and enervated, brimming with rage. Dylan gave us Mona Lisa with the highway blues, Desolation Row, and the loathsome Mr. Jones; Brock gives us a brain for a burger and a heart for coal, styrofoam boots, and Cowboy Dan, a major player in the cowboy scene. Underneath all the image-making, there’s plenty of breathing room and more than a few screeching turns. Brock’s lead guitar crashes and burns, lopes tenderly, incinerates again. These songs are never boring, even when they seem to soundtrack endurance itself (name a better driving song than “Truckers Atlas.”) 

For a three-piece whose unflinching work ethic is now the stuff of legends, it’s only fitting. In the mid-’90s, Brock, bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green were high-schoolers in the small town of Issaquah, Washington. They orbited hot independent scenes in Seattle and Olympia, both thrilling places for alternative rock. But from the get-go, Modest Mouse’s sound didn’t gel with either the grunge in Seattle or Olympia’s more outré experiments. Determined not to be pigeonholed, Brock took a hard line: if anyone asked, Modest Mouse was an Issaquah band.

If ever a brand-new group could afford to stand alone, this three-piece was it. Barely old enough for their learner’s permits, Brock, Judy and Green were already a triple threat: uncommon chops, a telekinetic sense of how to play together, and the will to do it pretty much all the time. Performing was the means and the end, the default—from house shows to local clubs to Calvin Johnson’s Dub Narcotic Studios in Olympia, where they cut their first EP as Modest Mouse in 1994. 

Recorded three years later, The Lonesome Crowded West still has that dogged, youthful resolve: pour everything into this gig and then haul ass to the next one. Keep it moving. But for all that unprocessed power, these songs have been mostly absent from live shows over the years. That is, until the tail end of 2022, when the band threw together a month-long tour in honor of the album’s 25th anniversary. Each night the band played the whole album front to back. I caught two shows, in Philly and New York, without any notable differences in the performance. Both nights, Brock was all business, no banter. “There, that’s that entire fucking record,” he grinned after playing the final note in New York. At the end of the day he was just doing his job. Keeping it moving.

Granted, the tour wasn’t a true reunion. For one, Judy left Modest Mouse in 2012 and didn’t return for the occasion (though Russell Higbee did an admirable job in his place.) And at the shows I saw in late December, Green was absent, too, for tragic reasons I’d discover before the year was out. On December 25th, it was announced that Green had been diagnosed with stage four cancer; he passed away six days later at just 45 years old. For such a short life, he leaves behind an outsized legacy: unquestionably one of the greatest drummers in indie rock history, and an inimitable part of the Lonesome Crowded West sound.

Even when he plays lightly, Green’s drums feel jarring; they clatter. The stunning closer “Styrofoam Boots / It’s All Nice On Ice, Alright” is his most acrobatic showcase. His drums are the last thing we hear on the album: the skittering remains of a solo that climbs in tempo and complexity over three straight minutes. At his fastest, Green sounds like two different drummers in lockstep, setting a frenetic pace for Brock’s strangled guitar lines. On the other hand, Judy’s bass is warm, without much bite. He’s never showy but he consistently finds unexpected ways to lock in with Green, often in the higher range. It’s his slide that defines “Lounge (Closing Time),” and he adds a gorgeous melody to the outro in “Trailer Trash.” A less creative bassist might have followed Green’s lead more closely, lending more of a straight punk or grunge feel. Instead, Judy adds beauty to the mess. Together, he and Green bring shape and physicality to Brock’s vision. 

And what a vision it is. You could call The Lonesome Crowded West a traveling album, but not for any road trip you’d want to be on. This is a circular ride. These songs aren’t about restoration, progress or seeing new sights; they’re about chugging along, seeing the same old shit no matter how far you go. But all the while there’s an irresistible rhythmic ebb and flow, the balance of a battle-tested band: unpredictability versus pounding regularity. Whether muttering or doom-screaming, Brock sings with a kind of breathless recitation, like he’s one voice in an unheard group sing-along. Every song has the echo of a shanty in it. Brock never settles; he’s always looking ahead to the next repetition, whether “waiting to bleed out on the big streets that bleed out onto the highways,” “standing in the tall grass, thinking nothing,” or “going to New York City, and that’s in New York, friends.” 

In terms of instrumentation and genre reference points, The Lonesome Crowded West is not a dance record. But in its own way, that’s exactly what it is. The tom groove in “Truckers Atlas” rolls along irresistibly. It’s a record scratch, of all things, that gives “Heart Cooks Brain” its dusty magic. And “Doin’ the Cockroach,” as Brock tells us, is named for a kind of “grubby human dance” we all do just by living. It’s not a pretty dance. It’s disorganized and loud, long and loping. But it’s a performance nonetheless. 

Here lies the seed of The Lonesome Crowded West’s pessimism. Brock squares up to despair, but he’s still detached—at times almost playful. Instead of withdrawing into melancholy, he embraces life’s absurd performativity; he goes along with the dance. The Christian God has an interesting (non)-presence all the while, popping in and out of the characters’ heads in cracked variations. Cowboy Dan points his rifle at the sky and says, “God, if I have to die, you will have to die.” Another narrator is wryly “on my way to God don’t know / Or even care.” There’s even a backcountry rave-up for Jesus Christ, whose dad “should have insured that planet before it crashed.” In “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice On Ice, Alright,” Brock puts the final stamp on his non-theology: “God takes care of himself, and you of you.” Better to accept that than to appeal to anyone “running this whole thing.” That chair’s empty. In Brock’s world, God’s just another crooked employer, his employees no more dead than the ones down on earth. “Peter and his monkey” probably keep the atheists “in the back, polishing halos, baking manna and gas.” 

It’s all bigger than any personal devastation. Brock has vocally criticized what he called “the paving of the West”: relentless construction of shopping malls as a way to expand and systematize mass consumption. Opener “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” is the perfect introduction to this perspective: a pre-verbal punk roar and a poem worth parsing again and again. It traces the entire album’s emotional detours, from relentless screaming to defeated monotone. The song’s most famous and most damning line is “Let’s all have another Orange Julius / Thick syrup, standing in line. In just two words—“thick syrup”—Brock delivers an emotional knockout. After all’s said and done, a vast, ecologically rich landscape has been razed, and for what? Sugary sludge. 

But the real payoff comes with the heartrending penultimate track, “Bankrupt On Selling.” “Businessers in their unlimited hell”—probably the same people who helped pave the way for the “soon-to-be ghost towns” in the West—“buy and they sell and they sell all their trash to each other.” Even in a little acoustic song like this, Brock injects that loping repetition again. Nothing’s changed, it’s all a drag, and no one’s trustworthy. “All the people you knew were the actors.”

Three years later, in the very first song on Modest Mouse’s next album, The Moon & Antarctica, Brock sings, “The universe is shaped exactly like the earth / If you go straight along enough you’ll end up where you were.” Clearly, the roadtripper nihilism hadn’t faded, its scope had just widened—from the American road to the entire cosmos. But it lost some of its bite along the way. Though The Moon & Antarctica is a very good record, it captures Modest Mouse off the ground—on a major label and working in flourishes like violin, lap steel and keys. Their ascent accelerated with Good News For People Who Love Bad News, the album that made them a commercial powerhouse and gave us “Float On.” 

Since then, their sound has only strayed further from The Lonesome Crowded West. They’ve never come close to touching it. Not that they’ve tried. As Brock says, “If something worked, I don’t want to just try and rebuild that. It’ll never work out…You could make a terrible record with that approach, but at least you won’t make the same record.” The Lonesome Crowded West is a jagged American desert dance that only happened once.

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