I thought about writing this review a few weeks ago, but I wasn't sure there was any point. Modest Mouse fans already know they at least like the album, and most fans will consider it the best or close to the best thing the band has ever released. For me, it's definitely my favorite Modest Mouse album, making it my favorite album of all time by default. But back to my original thought; why am I even writing this?
Is it for you, for me, for the band? Do I hope to convince you of its utter brilliance? Am I hoping that these words will inspire someone to check out the album who otherwise would not?
In the end, I'm writing it because I recently found that something in my head was dictating the words while I was trying to sleep. If I don't do this, it will haunt me.
If you are like me, some of your current favorite music did not instantly grab you the first time you heard it. Lonesome Crowded West falls into that category for me. However, investing time in several complete listens might just unlock the 'thing' that makes this the best album ever released. That's asking a lot in an age when most people are looking for instant gratification. They aren't looking for a homework assignment. Here's why you might consider it.
Lonesome Crowded West is like art. It's a Dali painting or a David Lynch movie in musical form. This album has layers and texture! It's too vast to assimilate with a casual single listen. There's just too much going on underneath. I might compare it to the difference between checkers and chess. Until you can hold the entire pattern of each song in your head, and absolutely know what is coming next, you can't fully appreciate this music.
Are you bored yet? Here's another image.
I bought Lonesome Crowded West, played it, and decided it was very good. Not as good as The Moon and Antarctica, but very good. It was about ten years later that it climbed to the very top of my Modest Mouse favorites and longer still before it became my favorite music by anyone. I want to visit the places on the album cover and learn to play all the songs. This review is yet another way I can hope to get a little closer to the music.
Let's take a look at the actual songs to see what all the fuss is about:
The album opens with an almost baffling assault on the senses. Teeth Like God's Shoeshine is my favorite track by anyone. The opening few seconds fling you into utter chaos. It's a fast, spiraling, guitar-driven beginning which soon features Isaac Brock's shouted vocals. "From the top of the ocean to the bottom of the sky." He's taking you on a journey and you have no control. The first 30 seconds pack in so much action before switching gears into the next phase (layers upon layers). After 90 seconds, Brock lets us catch our breath as the tempo shifts again. You'll notice as you work your way through this album that the lyrics are incredible. This is true of all Modest Mouse albums. The intelligence is always present. Who is the man with teeth like God's shoeshine? He sounds like some kind of salesman. The song forecasts the demise of the mall among other things. The flow of this music is hypnotic, urgent, essential, repetitive and reflective, all at the same time. Just when you think it's all over, Brock springs into action and gives us another minute of fiery guitar. Oh my goddamn! This song inspired me to make a fan video, so I am familiar with every tiny little detail. Here's the video if you are interested.
One song down, 15 to go. The second track would be my personal choice as Modest Mouse's anthem. Heart Cooks Brain is a very different beast and it quietly flows rather than assaulting you. The opening sounds sinister, as if Brock is taking you down a secret path in the woods. "On the way to God don't know, my brain's the burger and my heart's the coal." I love the line "I push things out through my mouth, I get refilled through my ears." And of course, the bitter buffalo. The lyrics almost magically flow together as if the words have only ever been used in this song. The whole time, guitar is woven into the sound, giving that extra texture. Brock is very restrained in his delivery, but the song is extremely potent and one of the band's best. The sudden ending is perfect.
Convenient Parking is one of those repetitive songs that bores its way into your brain and never really leaves. The style matches the subject matter. We're stuck in cars for way too long every week and it does get repetitive. Our lives can seem futile if we allow it. We are creatures of habit and we put up with a lot in order to earn the money that allows us to exist.
Have you ever played the game of judging an album by the quality of the first three tracks? I do that all the time. Hard to beat the three that start Lonesome Crowded West.
The album sounds terrific on vinyl and that's the format I am using for this review. That way, there's an extra track. Baby Blue Sedan shows Brock in mellow and reflective mood. "A nice heart and a white suit and a baby blue sedan, and I am doing the best that I can." This song would work well as the first part of an encore. It fits well at the end of side one. It's another song with perfect flow.
Side two opens with Jesus Christ Was An Only Child. You'll have noticed that a lot of Modest Mouse songs mention God in some way, but is clear that Brock isn't a fan or a believer. This song has a repetitive delivery over a prominent violin. "I know now what I knew then, but I didn't know then what I know now." And the violin continues weaving throughout the song. The innocent song runs its course and then a monster...
Doin' the Cockroach has claims as the best song on the album. I have it a hair behind Teeth Like God's Shoeshine. As the lyrics at the top of this post brilliantly proclaim, "I was in heaven, I was in hell, believe in neither but fear them as well." I wonder how many people feel the same way? This song is flat out exciting to me. The whole delivery is filled with adrenaline and I find it impossible to keep myself from shouting along. The lyrics contain a lot of insight, but it's the guitar-driven delivery which elevates the song to the elite tier of Modest Mouse songs. Brock shouts his way through a lot of the lyrics. As I once read somewhere, he sings like he's being chased by wasps. That's definitely true in Cockroach. See if you agree.
How do you follow that? Luckily, side two contains three superb songs that all have strong claims for inclusion in a Modest Mouse Top 10. Cowboy Dan is another with an almost sinister guitar line. Brock transitions from shouting for all he is worth to more reflective phases of the song. He's only partially possessed in this one. As I mentioned at the outset, it's hard to take everything in on the first listen. Cowboy Dan grows into something memorable after a few repeat listens. You end up craving that guitar line. "He drove the desert, fired his rifle in the sky and says, 'God, if I have to die, you will have to die'." I love the part where Brock slows it all down and gives us a few lines of wisdom:
Standing in the tall grass thinking nothing
You know we need oxygen to breathe oxygen to breathe
Every time you think you're walking you're just moving the ground
Every time you think you're talking you're just moving your mouth
Every time you're looking you're just looking down
Side two is just as incredible as side one because next up is Trailer Trash. The song eases its way in. "Eating snowflakes with plastic forks." "Short love with a long divorce." I like honesty in songs and in people in general. Trailer Trash seems to be a brutally honest assessment of Brock's early life. It builds into one of the more traditional song structures, so it is probably one of the easiest to absorb on the first listen. The last two minutes focus on the music and it's really fleshed out compared to the simple opening verses. I'm tempted to say it's a microcosm of Modest Mouse's career so far, but that sounds pretentious even to me.
Side three is a road trip. All four songs are about driving or some kind of travel. Out Of Gas meanders along, occasionally throwing out brilliant lyrics such as "opinions were like kittens we were giving them away." The simple theme and structure continues in Long Distance Drunk, which is a link to the shortest and longest songs on the album. Shit Luck is an absolute rant and is on the attack from the very first line. "This plane is definitely crashing." It shakes you out of the false sense of security of the previous track. Guitars are furiously spiraling away and the relentless drumming helps drive the song. It's quite amusing in its way. The final track on side three is a shade under 11 minutes long. Truckers Atlas is another grower. It seeps into your subconscious and the more you listen, the more you hear. It's repetitive, but always interesting. I particularly enjoy Green's drumming and the guitar layers that fill the song. If you're interested in how these songs developed, I give Pitchfork's documentary on the album my highest recommendation.
Only one more side and this 78-minute epic is over. Side four begins with the gentle Polar Opposites. It's hard to find much to say about this song. It's one of those that has perfect structure. Every instrument, every note, is just where it should be.
Bankrupt On Selling has to be the rawest song on the album. Honest lyrics usually do sound raw.
"Well, I'll go to college and I'll learn some big words
And I'll talk real loud, goddamn right I'll be heard
You'll remember the guy who said all those big words
He must have learned in college"
If you own the CD version, Lounge (Closing Time) is track four. On the vinyl, it seems to work better. For some strange reason, I never hear people talk about this song. I have no idea why. The scratchy guitar opens the way for Brock to give us a lot of information in the first minute of the song. The scene is set and the pattern repeats.
"I've got a girlfriend out of the city
I know I like her, I think she is pretty"
The thing that makes this song so great is the way the band starts rocking out at around the 3-minute mark. This segment is up there with anything the band has ever done. Maybe most people don't like all-out guitar rants as much as I do? Of course, Brock slows everything down again. It's hard to remember that the song is seven minutes long and has several phases. Those phases within each song are one of the reasons I love Modest Mouse. There's always something different before very long.
The final song is almost exactly the same length as the first. Styrofoam Boots/It's All Nice On Ice, Alright mentions religion. It has several phases. It has repetitive sequences. The tempo shifts from reflective to exciting. The second part of the song is incredible live. In short, it's a typical Modest Mouse song.
"I'm in heaven trying to figure out which stack
They're going to stuff us atheists into when Peter and his monkey laugh
And I laugh with them
I'm not sure what at."
"God takes care of himself and you of you."
Lonesome Crowded West is one of several brilliant Modest Mouse albums. It was released on November 18, 1997. All of the band's releases are worth your time. If you ever heard the album and dismissed it or forgot about it, I urge you to give it a few more listens. I love music and I think discovering the secrets this album holds was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.
Join me in saying happy 20th anniversary to a superb musical journey.
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