Comic Voice, Tragic Vision: Modest Mouse, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

By Daniel Garrett

Modest Mouse
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
Produced by Dennis Herring
Engineered by Joe Zook and Clay Jones
Epic/Sony BMG, 2007

Beauty is what is achieved when order becomes fine and formal, what is accomplished once effort and force are no longer crude, insensitive, what is left after confusion and pain and terror if one survives with purpose and wisdom, what we see when we observe clearly, with gratitude, the earth’s elements, or a work of art when finished, or someone’s face after the tears have dried, hers or our own. Is beauty ever anything more, or different? Can it be informal, raucous, full of pain and terror? Modest Mouse is the name of the band of players that includes Isaac Brock, Jeremiah Green, Eric Judy, Johnny Marr, Tom Peloso, and Joe Plummer; and the band has wrought beauty, with We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. The lyrics of the rock music group Modest Mouse do not involve simple declarations, if by simple one means in line with convention, logic, predictability; instead, intimacy is mixed with insult, imagination is rooted in emotion, and the listener is forced to grasp for meaning. “If food needed pleasing, you’d suck all the seasoning off! Suck it off!” is the first line in the band’s first song, “March into the Sea.” The voice of Isaac Brock that delivers the song is rudely, even insanely, boisterous, a comic voice; and the music that accompanies it moves from rock rave-up to pretty ballad, with the voice becoming delicate. The next lines are “Well, treat me like the disease, like the rats and the fleas, a-ha-ha!” It is hard to argue with a man who first insults you then accepts—if not insists on—an insult for himself. The narrator accuses the person he is talking to of having a head “filled with all wrong,” before saying “our tails wagged and then fell off but we just turned back, marched into the sea.” What can this mean? That “we” did what was natural, that it did us no good, and we gave in to our own destruction? The song’s wildly allusive imagery makes more than one interpretation possible. The originating situation is not clear: what inspired the song, the narrative? The singer offers gifts, offers to be cordial, but expects no good: “Let’s shake hands if you want but soon both hands are gone, ha-ha-ha!” Is the narrator mad, without logic, or is the world? “Well we all stumbled round tangled up in the cords from our phones, VCR, and our worldly woes,” he sings. Is the technology of the world—the abundance of the world—resource for the fulfillment of purpose; or disguise, distraction from deep purpose?

In “Dashboard,” the lines “Well it would’ve been, could’ve been worse than you would ever know” form the song’s cheery beginning; and “Oh the dashboard melted but we still had the radio” and “oh the windshield was broken but I love the fresh air you know,” suggest a quick capitulation to far-fetched disaster. Those are not the words of a man, or men, believing in easy heroism and good fortune. The song has a charming, quick rhythm and an eccentric voice, and the song features sharp guitar riffs, pounding drums, and orchestral sweep, a mix of musical and temperamental tones that is very appealing, a graspable but not easily explained complexity. In the song “Dashboard,” larger forces diminish the value of human action: “Oh if the world don’t like us it’ll shake us just like we were a cold.” The ability to know what is important is doubted, and the ability to accept correction seems unlikely, although attention is paid—and paid to both light entertainment and catastrophe.

Phrases such as “fire it up” and “fine enough” give the rhythm of ritual to the song “Fire It Up,” which has the crazed themes—perceptive, wild—established by preceding songs: “We tried to hide the daylight from the sun. Even if we had been sure enough, it’s true we really didn’t know. Even if we knew which way to head, but still we probably wouldn’t go. Fire it up, fire it up.” Without being pathetic, the singer’s voice encourages empathy. The song has a blunt beauty, the same kind of brilliant and brutal beauty that Nirvana’s album Nevermind had. (As in that case, the influx of corporate dollars was wonderfully invested in the music’s production.)

“Even as I had left Florida, far enough, far enough wasn’t far enough,” sings the narrator in “Florida,” which seems a song of misconceived adventure, of confusion and exile, of inadequate refuge. The shifts in the singer’s tone and the music arrangement turns this (and other songs) into musical drama. The song contains an intriguing image: “I stood on my heart’s porch thinking, ‘Oh my god, I probably have to carry this whole load.’”

“I would grab my shoes and then away I’d walk through all the stubborn beauty” and “A lifelong walk to the same exact spot” are lines in “Parting of the Sensory” that suggest an aesthetic response to existence, and a capacity for philosophical reflection, but something—difficult life experience, or complicated emotion—has made what might have been sublime less than that: ambiguous, fragmentary, troubling. It is then only a guess whether we are being given mad ramblings or poetic insights or rebellious creeds: “The parting of the sensory. Who the hell made you the boss? We placed our chips in all the right spots, but still lost.” What does “this fits like clothes made out of wasps” mean? That one is wrapped in something stinging? That one is surrounded by what is uncomfortable and unnatural? There are lines about the theft of one’s “carbon,” suggesting a shared fundamental existence that produces exploitation and death rather than community, in the song (“Parting of the Sensory”). The use of curse words, usually dull and offensive, is here a genuine aspect of a sensibility and a mood, and thus tolerable and more. Cursing becomes a matter of art, rather than an indulgent and repellent imposition.

“I was knocking on your ear’s door but you were always out” is a nice description of the failure to communicate in “Missed the Boat.” Something complex—our divided consciousness, our embattled commitments—is indicated in the lines, “Looking towards the future we were begging for the past. Well we know we’d had the good things but those never seem to last—oh, please, just last” and “Our ideas held no water but we used ‘em like a dam.” This song—and the others—echo with revelation, as possibilities and thought experiments, as observations and conclusions and damnations. “Missed the Boat,” with “Dashboard,” is one of the album’s most charming songs—direct, imaginative, passionate, reckless, smart. When in “Missed the Boat” the singer says, “We didn’t read the invite; we just danced at our own wake. All our favorites were playing so we could shake, shake, shake” then sound and sense are one: sound and movement seem the most important part of existence; and no idea can justify existence, only pleasing acts.

What is there but abundance, calculation, death, futility—and the subterfuge with which we approach or disguise them in the western world? What but consciousness and pleasure? In “We’ve Got Everything,” the narrator admits, “We’ve tried everything half-assed and as liars. That’s how we got everything.” One life can embody the consciousness of a world. One hears the triumph of a man who has gone through the worst, and maybe been the worst, and survived, still able to laugh—at the world and at himself. It is the triumph not of morality, not even of mind, but the triumph of spirit.

The requirements of the earth, of a given society, come to us in laws, in myths; and are acknowledged in “Fly Trapped in a Jar,” when the characters in the song visit a strange town, a town in which “the ground needs to be fed,” and the ignorant travelers are made to feed the ground with their own bodies (with their deaths). The song suggests an epic story, a story of strange encounters in mapped and mapless travels; and it is slightly reminiscent of David Byrne’s Talking Heads. The music, which can change quickly, and does, can seem complex or the function of a personality either refusing to be bored, and settled, or incapable of being settled, for even a minute.

The singer Isaac Brock uses a rough, chanting voice in “Education,” a song with guitar and drums; and the song is music both the raging and the repressed can see themselves in, as their normal state or their desired expression (explosion). “We’re still monkeys the whole time. We could not help from flinging shit in our modern suits and ties,” the singer accuses in “Education,” denying the most important kinds of evolution: intellectual understanding, spiritual change. There is perpetual return to old habits, and the recurrent strategy of the songs—which refer to the same characters (“We’ve Got Everything” and “Fly Trapped in a Jar” refer to a drunken acquaintance named Gary) or use some of the same phrases (“Parting of the Sensory” and “Education” both refer to “stubborn beauty”). Old habits do not die hard: they do not die—and “all them books I didn’t read. They just sat there on my shelf looking much smarter than me.”

The world being what it is, many people put their faith in private life, in family and love; and it is interesting that there are so few capitulations to such devotions in the songs of Modest Mouse. One of the minuscule number of songs that might be considered a “love” song is “Little Motel,” which acknowledges the battles that have been waged in the relationship (“I don’t think that there was an insult that was missed”). The tone of the song is tender, but its lyric content is toxic.

In “Steam Engenius,” there seems a bit of science fiction, with the narrator claiming, “I was born in a factory” and “You cheered as I was split in half, a mechanical sacrificial calf for you” and “human nature was installed in me. I did what’s right but naturally it wasn’t natural.”

There is more malice and destruction, more waste of time and strength, in “Spitting Venom,” in which the singer’s associate seems the winner in the war of words, and the singer claims that for the venom there has been an antidote (but does not name the antidote). The song has a blues-like rhythm that begins it, a rhythm that is replaced by orchestral “noise,” dense and propulsive, as the singer’s voice moves from reason to rant and then from rant to reason (and the music from noise to simple order).

“We were the people that we wanted to know and we’re the places that we wanted to go,” declares the singer in “People as Places as People,” and mentions the “people you loved but you didn’t quite know.” That seems an acknowledgement of human mystery, which we come back to, despite our analysis and explanations, our judgments and condemnations. “We weren’t invisible, not all along. No matter how many eons came and are gone,” the narrator claims in “Invisible,” the kind of declaration that carries a doubt (why the need to affirm something so simple?). I guess simple affirmations are one more way of staying sane.

Daniel Garrett, a longtime New York resident and a graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com<; and his commentaries on Bloc Party, Randy Crawford, Neil Young, Patti Austin, Yoko Ono, U2, The Dears, Bright Eyes, Terence Trent D’Arby, Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, and others have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Garrett’s “Iconography: Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life” was featured on Offscreen.com. Garrett’s work has appeared also in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, The Humanist, NatCreole.com, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com or d.garrett.writer@gmail.com

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