Modest Mouse’s “The Lonesome Crowded West” at 20

Illustration by Yumi Wilson

By Ray Freedman

On Nov. 18, Modest Mouse’s beautiful and rough album “The Lonesome Crowded West” turns 20. Like many people born around the mid ’90s, just when Modest Mouse was getting started, I grew up hearing of them – not really recognizing their presence in the musical lexicon. I just knew that song on the radio, “Float On.”

I didn’t give the band a serious listen until a friend of mine bothered me enough about it. At the time, it was typical of me to take multiple trips to the desert throughout the year — to just drive a few hours east of LA and get away. Once I heard “The Lonesome Crowded West,” it was always my go-to album on the drive.

The record opens with “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine.” There is no restraint as Isaac Brock’s fractured guitar sound riffs with Eric Judy’s hectic bass, Jeremiah Green’s impacting drums and Brock’s screaming vocals. The yelled verse ends with, “Went to the county line, paid the rent and said, uh oh.” Then the track quickly breaks and changes its mood. With a simple rest, the only thing playing is the guitar, which has become restrained and quiet. Brock’s vocals become gentle and reflective. “Go to the grocery store / buy some new friends / and find out the beginning, the end, and the best of it.” The chorus muses on the feeling of constantly running out of things. The opening track is epic but intimate, and illustrates the point-counterpoint tendencies of the album.

The opening doesn’t pander, it commands the listener into Modest Mouse’s sonic world. The album does not repeat itself, though. There is every kind of rock song on the record. This is indicative of the scale of the album, which separates it from their first studio album, “This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About.”

One of the first songs Brock wrote for the record is one of its finest gems. “Trailer Trash” is one of the most honest tracks in Modest Mouse’s discography. Brock’s lyrics and storytelling tend to be more consistently fictional, but on “Trailer Trash” it feels more personal. He sings, “And I shout that you’re all fakes,” with a sad inflexion, while in the background there is take of him shouting “Fakes!” It isn’t fancy. Brock’s honesty is a need more than a desire, and it’s what makes the album accessible.

For raw fun, there is the awesome outburst of “Sh*t Luck.” Brock screams “This plane is totally crashing! / This boat is obviously sinking!” before his guitar goes wild. This embrace of descent, this inclination to use up oneself, is one of the throughlines of the album.

This pattern is in full effect on “Cowboy Dan.” The music and lyrics portray the figure, ‘Cowboy Dan,’ in a blind rage. Dan is a major player who drinks and gets mean, fires his rifle in the sky because he is angry with God and he keeps saying to himself, “I got mine but I want more.” The music is menacing and steady like an invader. Similar to the opening track, though, it descends into major chords and gentleness. Dan must be reminded that he will be “standing in the tall grass, thinking nothing.” “You know we need oxygen to breath,” Brock sings, as if Dan has forgotten it.

If you go to a Modest Mouse show, there is every kind of rock demographic present. It’s odd, just like the blend of influences felt through the band’s musical tendencies. With this album, Modest Mouse cemented themselves as a canonized band and it’s as if they knew it. Their following albums, though fantastic, are more produced and refined. “The Lonesome Crowded West” is a record that is desperately holding on to a certain layman’s eagerness.

“God takes care of himself, and you of you,” are some of the final lines of the album, sung over a simple and easy major key strum that reminds one of a ’60s folk song, before a drum explodes with the intent to slam your ears. It’s an album that captures the empty feeling of the American west, and the raw impulse to try and fill it.

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