Lately, Modest Mouse front man Isaac Brock has been fond of telling rock critics about his run-ins with Satan -- an explanation for the grim content of the trio's latest record and major-label debut. Such fire-and-brimstone rationalizations might sound strange coming from a young man who, in the past, has been known as a staunch agnostic. But looking back at the last few years of Brock's life, it's easy to understand why he might feel ominous forces have been at work.
He's seen the devil manifested in the accusations of a woman (who claims that Brock raped her a year and a half ago), in the words of the media (Seattle's alternative weekly The Stranger printed a fairly one-sided account of the allegation, despite charges having never being filed; Brock maintains his innocence), and in the fists of an angry Chicago mob (who broke his jaw).
Modest Mouse's previous records were never particularly wicked affairs; sure, they're tainted with the frustration and dejection common to the members' generation -- for example, a track like "Polar Opposites," where Brock explains "I'm trying to drink away the part of the day that I cannot sleep away" -- but the band's songs were more like paintings of the America outside your front door than the bitter cosmic warnings that fill The Moon and Antarctica (due out June 13).
The band's two full-length albums, This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About and The Lonesome Crowded West, as well as the Interstate 8 EP, are modern Americana, filtered through the broken hearts of its innocent, though never naive, chroniclers. In this context, The Moon and Antarctica is an aberration. The experiences of the past three years, and Brock's encounters, have propelled the band into a new dimension; exchanging polite musings on life for strident commentaries on God's petty vengeances. It's a nightmarish epic, and one told from the perspective of a true survivor.
The album opens with the line, "Everything that keeps me together is falling apart/I've got this thing that I consider my only art/Of fucking people over." That first track, "3rd Planet," sets the tone for the 14 other songs, works of self-examination placed within the broader setting of forces aligning against humanity -- the chorus softly observes that "The 3rd planet is sure that they're being watched/By an eye in the sky that can't be stopped./When you get to the promised land/You're gonna shake the eye's hand."
"3rd Planet" and the subsequent "Gravity Rides Everything" ease those familiar with Modest Mouse's music gently into a maelstrom that begins with "Dark Center of the Universe." The first two tracks feature Brock's familiar guitar harmonics and minor chord progressions balanced alongside Eric Judy's galloping bass lines and drummer Jeremiah Green's playful pounding. But by the time the third song hits, you're plunged into an uncomfortable world of oscillating, unnatural tones and bellowed declarations like, "Well, it took a lot of work to be the ass that I am/And I'm really damn sure that anyone can/Equally, easily fuck you over." The obstinate browbeating is contrasted with an eerily spectral and subdued chorus, where Brock offers "I might disintegrate into the thin air if you'd like."
These detached commentaries on the nature of vengeance are woven throughout the record, as on the nearly nine-minute "The Stars Are Projectors," and "Alone Down There," where Brock pleads that another's damnation not be too lonely. The reincarnation tale "I Came As a Rat" explains that "It takes a long time, but God dies too/But not before he'll stick it to you." Things take a darkly comic turn on "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes," a mini-saga in which hell freezes over and the Lord advises Brock to get a sweater. Toward the end of the record, on "Lives," a realization hits the singer -- he wails, "My hell/Comes from inside . . . /Comes from inside myself . . . /Why fight this."
There are the more grounded tracks on The Moon and Antarctica, songs that don't broach sensitive theological matters, but they're just as morose and often accompanied by downbeat, twanging, country-esque melodies (as on "Perfect Disguise," "Wild Packs of Family Dogs" and "Paper Thin Walls"). The music is still distinctively theirs, but the work of a new producer (ostensibly the result of a major-label recording budget) and the members' maturing gifts for timing, dynamics and studio trickery would lead you to believe that at least a decade had passed between this album and The Lonesome Crowded West.
Despite the overwhelming darkness of The Moon and Antarctica, the tone never strikes you as defeated. Without question Brock sounds cynical and weathered, but defiant nonetheless. This is, after all, a young man who's stared into the devil's eyes and lived to make a record about it.
Modest Mouse is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, June 6, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with Califone, and the Shins. Showtime is 9 p.m.
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