Modest Mouse’s breakout album The Lonesome Crowded West (1997) turned 20 on Saturday, November 18th. The album is only two years younger than frontman Isaac Brock was when it was first released, but Lonesome Crowded West has just as much relevance today as it did when it first came out. Over the past twenty years, the anxiety about the impending digital age has given way to the reality of progress. When you’re listening to this album, our current reality seems almost insultingly predictable. Lyrics like “The malls are the soon to be ghost towns” ring eerily true. You have to wonder what Brock was thinking when he wrote that line, and what could have been different if we had also been paying attention.
It’s hard not to write about Modest Mouse in these grandiose terms because of their songwriting style. Brock generally sings from an omniscient perspective rather than a particularly personal one. “Cowboy Dan” is both a great example of this omniscient songwriting and one of my favorite cuts off the album. This song is laced with imagery of an old cowboy who is watching the world slowly develop around him while he tries to kill god. As absurd as this narrative may be, there’s something oddly beautiful about imagining Cowboy Dan taking on his creator and confronting his own mortality head on as the world is ripped from beneath him. Above all, it provides a warning about the refusal to adapt and change, and a warning that we all will eventually end up out in the desert like Cowboy Dan.
The moments when Brock does get personal are that much more powerful due to how few and far between they are. Lyrics like “Eating snowflakes with plastic forks” tell you more about Brock than any 2002 indie-pop ballad can tell you about their writer’s lead singer. And on “Bankrupt on Selling,” the final lines are probably the closest to confessional that we hear Brock get. Those final lyrics, “I loved her more when she used to be sober and I was kinder,” show us everything we need to know without tripping over themselves or shrouding their meaning in metaphor.
Admittedly, the nostalgia in this album is for a time that I didn’t experience. However, I think it says something about the quality of the songwriting that this album can make me miss a time that I wasn’t really alive for. And as great as some of Modest Mouse’s later work was, in my mind they’ve never quite recaptured the same level of unpredictability and timelessness in their songs. Even the most punky songs on Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004) sound quantized and safe. When Good News turns 21, it will go out to a nice bar and order 3-5 IPA’s. When Lonesome Crowded West turns 21, it will black out doing lines in a van before midnight.
Written by Walker Spence