"We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank"
Released: March 22, 2007
Love — true love, head-over-heels, seeing stars love, til-death-do-us-part love — only lasts a year. Don't believe me? Researchers showed that some chemical or protein (excuse this MIT student's highly technical explanation) is found in the brain at high levels for the first year of romance. We read an article about this phenomenon during my writing course last semester, and the facts all seemed in place. After reading, my outraged classmates presented numerous arguments against this stoic and un-storybook-like viewpoint. After a group discussion, we concluded that perhaps the intensity and excitement of first love fades with time, but it is then replaced with the satisfying feeling of familiarity. I think I can live with that definition.
So now a decade has passed since the release of my first and favorite Modest Mouse album, The Lonesome Crowded West. I'm no alternative rock Luddite; I respect groups that can advance with subsequent releases, and positively rave about bands that veer off the paths I was sure they'd follow based on prior albums. I exhausted my mom all Easter, barraging her with information on new and innovative albums I've loved this year (see: Grizzly Bear's Yellow House, White Rabbits' Fort Nightly, Menomena's Friend and Foe). But now that Modest Mouse, a band whose last album would have made my desert island discs collection without question, has released its newest album, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, I'm not quite sure whether to praise it or pass it over.
It's not a bad album, this new Modest Mouse release; I'll venture to say it's a pretty good one, and I'll bet myself a soda that come summer it'll be in my car CD player constantly. After only one listen through, tracks like "Fire It Up," "Parting Of The Sensory," and the almost-epic "Spitting Venom" were stuck in my head. These are cleverly crafted songs, my friends. They're layered with violins and banjos and hand-claps and the rasping back-up vocals that have made Isaac Brock's voice as recognizable and inimitable as the vocal chords of Tom Waits, Lou Reed, and Frank Black. Those dizzying, clear and repetitive guitar lines that are so synonymous with Modest Mouse are all over this record. Underneath all the musical clamor, Brock's hidden some brilliant pop melodies, as he's done in the past few albums, specifically 2004's Good News For People Who Love Bad News. All of the things I liked on old Modest Mouse albums are just as present on the new one.
I still love Modest Mouse, and I maybe love this record. But it's a muted kind of love, a love more like comfortability and less like intoxication. Listening to The Lonesome Crowded West when I first got it was like being a virgin during a first sexual encounter. Hearing We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is more like sitting down to an expensive dinner with a romantic partner of, well, ten years on an anniversary. No one could argue that the latter experience is unromantic, and certainly it's more based on maturity and adulthood than the former. But I can't fight the feeling that I could have seen every track on We Were Dead coming from a mile away.
I saw Modest Mouse earlier this year, during a week in which they played five shows in New York City. I found myself playing a game: based on which instruments the band picked up, I tried to guess the next song in the set before the band began to play (i.e. Banjo and upright bass = "Bukowski"). I was right most of the time, but that didn't make the songs less exciting. But as far as We Were Dead goes, I've heard all these tricks before. I've heard Brock's octave-below vocals coming in to support the melody on random lines. The frantic chorus of the first single, "Dashboard," is strangely similar to the memorable 2004 track "Float On," despite the songs' significant structural differences. I've never heard Smith's guitarist Johnny Marr play with Modest Mouse (as he does on We Were Dead), but frankly I don't think he makes a tremendous difference as far as song quality goes. I should be bored with this record, but here comes the pleasant part of familiarity. Isaac Brock can't surprise me anymore but I can still get excited when I hear him doing something I like, something I know, and something to which I've grown accustomed, just as I get pleasure from sleeping in my bed at home or seeing old friends.
So We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is not an album that will induce fits of passion. It's not a record you'll stay up all hours of the night listening to, and it's not a record you'll remember for a seductive first listening. But these songs will grow on you, and they'll feel as familiar as anything else in the Modest Mouse repertoire. They'll be the soundtrack to some mundane experience that you'll later look back on and smile. We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank will be a comfortable experience, and like I said before, I think I — and you — can live with that.