Monday, March 20, 2017

All at Sea: We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank at 10

If you ignore the various EPs, mini-albums, and rarities compilations they've released over the years, Modest Mouse's discography can be roughly divided into two equal parts.

Their first three albums - This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About (1996), The Lonesome Crowded West (1997), and The Moon & Antarctica (2000) - were made by a tight-as-hell trio who knitted together weird, wonky riffs and strong, sinewy rhythms to create brilliant and bizarre indie rock that perfectly evoked the immense, sprawling, spread-out strangeness of North America. Having only ever driven on British roads, I can't really speak from experience - the longest journey I ever completed took me from Cardiff to York and covered roughly 250 miles, which is slightly less than the distance between Seattle, Washington and Spokane, Washington - but whenever I listen to those first few Modest Mouse albums in all their long-playing glory, the feeling I'm left with is similar to the feeling I imagine truck drivers get about eight hours into an eleven-hour shift. During longer tracks like Truckers Atlas from The Lonesome Crowded West, you begin to lose all sense of time and space, until eventually all you're aware of is Jeremiah Green's drumming stretching off into the distance like endless yellow lines on the tarmac.

Green left the band in 2003, and this is where Modest Mouse: Phase 2 began. From 2004's Good News for People Who Love Bad News onwards, the Mouse ceased to be a lean power trio and became a colourful, ever-changing carnival that whirled around singer/guitarist Isaac Brock, the only person to appear on all six Modest Mouse LPs to date. Good News brought a whole rattle-bag of new sounds to the table, from mellotrons and pump organs to horns and tin whistles; just as interestingly, it signalled the beginning of Brock's lyrical preoccupation with all things nautical. Before 2004, Isaac Brock wrote lots of songs about long road journeys, but Good News - spearheaded by surprise hit Float On - left the land behind and led its listeners out to sea for a change.

And Modest Mouse haven't looked back since. We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank - which came out ten years ago today - took the seafaring themes at which Float On and Ocean Breathes Salty hinted and swam with them, resulting in a deranged ocean voyage of an album that sailed straight to the top of the US album chart. In a Rolling Stone interview published shortly prior to the release of We Were Dead, Brock explained his newfound obsession with the sea thusly:

"There is something genuinely freeing to me about the ocean. There are no borders - it's fucking beautiful. I'm not going to get to do space travel, so what's under the water is quite a bit more interesting to me. I just went snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef with my fiancée. Also, I've gotten into surfing a bit. I can't stand up for more than five seconds, but I like the fact that I can paddle out into oblivion."

From the unhinged stomp of March Into the Sea to the wistful shimmer of Missed the Boat to the coiled-snake strum of Spitting Venom, there are all kinds of different sounds to be heard on We Were Dead, but if these songs have one thing in common, it's the fact that they all seem to exist in very close proximity to the sea and all the mystery and promise that it offers.

Of course, the sea and the vessels floating upon it mean different things depending on which of We Were Dead's fourteen tracks you're listening to. On March Into the Sea, the opening number, the sea represents regression, devolution - humanity returning to the briny blue from whence it originally crawled. Fire it Up, by contrast, talks about finding "the perfect water" for a skinny dip with a lover; here, the sea represents a start rather than an ending, the butterfly-stomach beginning of a relationship as opposed to the bitter end described elsewhere on this album.

Boats, too, are used as a changeable metaphor throughout We Were Dead. The aforementioned Missed the Boat is a melancholy indie-pop gem that uses 'the boat' in its most popular idiomatic sense as a symbol of opportunity - an opportunity to leave the shore behind and find out what else this planet has to offer, and an opportunity that the narrator of that song seemingly failed to seize. In the gorgeous post-breakup relationship autopsy that is Little Motel, however, ships - specifically sinking ships - represent the arguments and "mishaps" that occur between romantic partners. "I know that I don't want to be out to drift," sings Brock's protagonist, but the implication is that he needs to start ignoring that urge to abandon ship at the first sign of choppy waters.

Isaac Brock's comments about the "genuinely freeing" no-borders nature of the ocean are very interesting when viewed in the context of Modest Mouse's back catalogue. As I mentioned earlier, Brock wrote quite a few songs about driving back in the band's early days, and after reading that Rolling Stone quote, it's tempting to imagine that he was always trying to reach the coast - striving to find the outer edge of his home continent, plunge into the water, and "paddle into oblivion". If that's the case, then We Were Dead - rather than being the madcap departure from the band's signature sound that many view it as - is both the splashy realisation and a wonderfully in-depth exploration of what Modest Mouse were all about from the very beginning.

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