We Were Dead Is Full Of Life
David Jackson
4/23/2007 10:17:05 AM

Ex-indie rock stars Modest Mouse have been under constant scrutiny since signing to a major label and, more significantly, scoring a certifiable radio hit with “Float On” from their last LP, Good News For People Who Love Bad News [Epic]. While many expressed concerns that the band was shifting away from the darker themes of their first albums and becoming optimistic and melodic to drum up sales, a closer view showed a more interesting evolution: Modest Mouse's new material, while generally more melodic than their old albums, is just as dark, portraying the band's dismal worldview through a lens of frantic irony. Several years later, their latest disc, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank [Epic], continues this stylistic shift. Combining nautical imagery with singer Isaac Brock's spastic vocals and the backing of new guitarist Johnny Marr, Modest Mouse sinks their obtuse, emotional sound into the depths of the ocean. What they find there is, oddly enough, comfortably familiar.

We Were Dead is intense, even occasionally brutal, but (keeping with Modest Mouse's distinctive style) consistently experimental. The songs are a bit funky, with overtones of outrage, surprise, or disgust. Also, while each track is quite distinct, the album as a whole seems to go together. The “ship,” a recurring theme, comes up just often enough in the lyrics for the instrumentation to call to mind the slow sway of the ocean and the tide, or of a rising storm. In “Little Motel” the distorted guitar channels a chorus of seagulls, and the crashing drums become waves battering the shore. Of course, nothing's perfect – for example, “Steam Engenius”, the improbable tale of a robotic messiah, doesn't quite seem to fit in. In general, though, the missteps are minor, and the band really shines with a very solid album.

Of course, the writing deserves attention as well. There's a torrent of confused emotions on We Were Dead, sometimes reaching out for love, and other times turning a cold, embittered shoulder to the world. The album's lead single, “Dashboard,” is a rousing anthem about a loss of control, told through the metaphor of a panicked driver trying to control his car as it seems to disintegrate. The slowly building musical intensity meshes so well with Brock's half-sung-half-shouted vocals that you can nearly see him at the wheel, steering for his life against oncoming traffic, shouting to some terrified passenger that it “would have been, could have been, worse than you would ever know.” Other songs are more introspective, musing on life, death, and of course, the afterlife. “Parting Of The Sensory” ends with the chilling, detached inevitability, “someday you will die and someone or something will steal your carbon.” On “Fly Trapped In A Jar,” Brock gives the closest nod to the album's title, whimpering, “Well, it's probably been said, we were, already dead,” before calling out angrily, “One wing wasn't even enough, it wasn't even enough, it wasn't even enough to live!” What exactly all this means you'll have to work out for yourself – Modest Mouse has never been about clarity, but after all, that's part of their charm.

In some ways, We Were Dead is a very different album, both compared to the vast majority of available music and to the rest of Modest Mouse's catalog. For Modest Mouse, though, different is par for the course. A dash of sonic evolution, a unique tradition, a morbid fascination with death, the smell of the sea, and a frightened, anxious glimpse into the future: this is one hell of a CD.


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