fter 2004’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News, Modest Mouse stood teetering on an MOR precipice. Lead guitarist and vocalist Isaac Brock, unable to honestly inhabit his familiar persona—a compelling jumble of working-class bluster, wounded vulnerability, and drugged madness—spent the album groping for a new context from which to speak. The best song on that album, and the tune that encapsulated Modest Mouse’s identity crisis, was the “smash-hit” single “Float On.” Riding an endless stairstep progression, Brock strung together a series of disaster scenarios—“I backed my car into a cop car the other day”—that magically resolved themselves with the inevitability of the chord progression: “Well, he just drove off, sometimes life’s okay.” It was as if Brock was learning, in his tender late-20s and to his eternal surprise, that sometimes—though not often—things don’t go completely to shit. It was also the most surprising moment on the album, pointing to crossroads for Brock and for the band, away from their comfortable pocket of Midwestern teenage existential angst towards something new, possibly scary.
It seems that faced with the choice, they have taken a breath and made the plunge, for Modest Mouse have become a new kind of machine with We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. Brock brought on board ’80s indie icon and alt-rock guitar hero Johnny Marr to help him write the record, and right from the opening notes of “March Into the Sea,” it lunges out of your speakers with a completely unprecedented ferocity. Jeremiah Green thumps the drums like they’re a disco-rock outfit, Marr suspends airy webs of guitar over the mix, and Brock delivers the most straightforward, stadium rock-ready hooks of his career.
There are numerous possible car-commercial candidates here, from the ambling acoustic shuffle of “Missed the Boat” (which sports soaring backup vocals from The Shins’ James Mercer) to the lilting chorus of “Florida” to the blasting horn charts of first single “Dashboard.” This isn’t Modest Mouse’s pop album, exactly. Brock’s demented carny-barker vocals, always a tough sell, are still front and center, and the band hasn’t toned down the metallic squeal of their guitars. A few songs here, like “Spitting Venom” and “Parting of the Sensory,” boast ambitious, multipart structures. But Brock’s idiosyncratic worldview, so much a part of what made Modest Mouse special to begin with, has left the building. Instead of the gnomic observations—“Laugh hard, it’s a long way to the bank”—that he used to dispense, Brock sticks to simple, declamatory phrases like “Fire it up” or “Let it all drop.” When he strains for his old brand of surrealism, yelping about “clothes made out of wasps,” he just embarrasses himself.
The best tunes ignore this problem and focus on the groove. “Education” musters a little of Brock’s old sarcasm—“Call it education / It was something in between / You gave me some sound advice but I wasn’t listening”—against a lurching bass line and strong backbeat. “Steam Eugenius” and “Fly Trapped in a Jar” are as abrasive as anything the group has ever done, while “March Into the Sea” is the only place where Brock sounds as gloriously unhinged as he did in the band’s heyday. Marr is a welcome addition to the lineup, though he doesn’t drastically alter the group’s dynamic. Mostly, he accentuates the songs with graceful touches here and there. If I had read nothing of Marr’s involvement with this project, I would have assumed that the group had just hired a better producer.
Brock isn’t drinking or engaging in other destructive pastimes anymore, and while I generally believe that linking an artist’s genius to their drug of choice is one of the most deeply shitty and socially irresponsible things a critic or fan can do, it seems dead-on accurate here. Ever since he delivered the fever dream The Moon and Antarctica in 2001 and publicly distanced himself from drink and drugs, Brock’s trademark moments of otherworldly insight have slowly lost their clarity. On We Were Dead, they devolve into gibberish (“It honestly was beautifully bold / Like trying to save an ice cube from the cold,” from “Fire It Up”—or try “Someday you will die somehow and something’s gonna steal your carbon” from “Parting of the Sensory”). Maybe it’s not the drugs; maybe it’s creeping complacence. But whatever it was that vaulted Brock to visions of “the oceans in our bodies” or the universe being built on a never-ending math equation” seems to have disappeared. Now, he’s somewhere a lot more healthy, mundane, and boring.