Sharps & Flats

Modest Mouse's "The Moon & Antarctica" explores desolate regions, both geographic and spiritual.

Topics: Music,

Isaac Brock may be the voice for a new lost generation — even if that generation doesn’t yet know it’s lost. In any event, he is certainly a voice for alienated souls who find themselves baffled and bewildered, not to mention menaced, by the curious world swirling around them.

The lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for the Seattle indie-rock trio Modest Mouse, Brock — with bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green — has just released “The Moon & Antarctica,” the group’s first foray into major-label territory after several singles and two full lengths for Up records.

Much has been made recently of the dark side of popular music. Goth cartoon Marilyn Manson and the reprehensibly misogynistic Eminem have raised hackles — and, not surprisingly, their profiles — with lyric content that is as calculated to shock as it is to rake in the bucks. But the darkness professed, or rather explored, on “The Moon & Antarctica” is of a very different order. It is, as the title suggests, a visit to desolate regions, both geographic and spiritual, where a post-apocalyptic Mad Max landscape serves as a metaphor for emotional barrenness.

“Everything that keeps me together is falling apart,” are the first words Brock sings on the album’s opening track, “Third Planet,” and from there follows a 60-minute, 15-song treatise on isolation, displacement and a seemingly bottomless spiritual void. The album is replete with examples.

From “Lives:” “Everyone’s afraid of their own life. If you could be anything you want I bet you’d be disappointed. Am I right?”

From “A Different City:” “I want to live in a city with no friends or family/I’m gonna look out the window of my color TV/I will remember to remember to forget you.”

From “I Came as a Rat:” “It takes a long time, but God dies too, but not before he’ll stick it to you.”

They are lost and wounded lyrics, despairing and hopeless. But Modest Mouse’s music does not make for a gloomy, navel-gazing journey. In what has become somewhat of a trademark, the band’s songs are like balloons filled slowly with air that burst with an unnerving abruptness. Judy and Green are a dynamic and fruitful rhythm section with an appreciation for nuance and an ability to deliver it. The bullet-speed “What People Are Made Of” and funky “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” prove Modest Mouse can rock as hard and as interestingly as any band. And though Brock’s range as a singer is limited, his songs hinge on emotion. When he flips the switch from mopey forlorn mystic to feverish Pentecostal preacher, the effect is both frightening and exhilarating.

There are critics who have slapped Brock as a cheeky smart aleck interested only in making a nuisance of himself, getting stoned and having his bit of fun. That assessment abysmally underestimates an artist who couldn’t be more serious about his work. If his lyrics are occasionally nonsensical wishy-washy whimsy, they are intentionally so. It reflects the percolating absurdity he observes in all that surrounds him and a belief that order and reason are just tote bags filled with holes.

Joe Heim is a frequent contributor to Salon. He lives in Washington.

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