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Audio Reviews
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
by Modest Mouse
Sony/Epic Records (2007)
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
If there’s any one word that could accurately describe the Weltanschauung of Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, it would be dissatisfaction. Not just your average ho-hum sense of disappointment—I’m talking full-blown dream-deferment of Brownian proportions. Charlie Brown, that is.

You can hear in Brock’s voice the same pessimistic resignation embodied by good ol’ Chuck: the sad expectation of imminent catastrophe, the intimate knowledge of personal failure. The emotional scars left by a little red-headed girl who never paid him any attention, a pitcher’s mound that was always covered with dandelions, a game-winning pop-fly that was never caught, and a football that was always yanked away at the last minute. Always. Try as he might, nothing in Chuck’s life never changed, and the same old hits just kept on coming. And yet, he never gave up. Chuck never stopped trying, even though he had no illusions about what would happen in the end: a topsy-turvy trip to the turf followed by a blinding view of the sky above—always there, always unreachable, the malicious cackle of Lucy echoing in the background.

You blockhead.

In my mind, Isaac Brock is the man who Charlie Brown would eventually have become had Charles Schulz ever bothered to let ol’ Chuck grow into his adult-minded depression. A jaded man, tired of all of life’s problems but resigned to absorb the blows as best he can, to shrug them off, cover the bruises, and keep on trucking. Or rocking, as the case may be.

Okay, so maybe Chuck would have been able to avoid Brock’s drug problems, DUI convictions, and (admittedly dismissed) rape charges. Still, they share that feeling of acknowledged futility; it’s the same feeling that permeates every Modest Mouse album, a sense of “why bother?” fatalism that’s once again brought to the fore with the band’s latest release, the morbidly-titled We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.

Even with the return of original Modest drummer Jeremiah Green, the addition of former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, and a guest appearance or two by James Mercer of the Shins—good things, all—there seems to be no cheering Brock out of his long-standing nihilistic funk. Right from the get-go, “March into the Sea” lurches forward with a dark, Irish-styled backdrop of accordion and violin while Brock throws out his gruff cries, mumbled verses, and malicious laughs: “Drag me out of the sea and then teach me to breathe, / give me forests so dead I wish death on myself! / A-ha-ha! A-ha-ha!”

Yeah. Call me crazy, but that’s not meant to be a happy song, is it?

As if you didn’t already know what to expect, We Were Dead is hardly the feel-good album of the year, and the added instrumentation and effects show that it is by no means a return to the pared-down pop-rock of early Modest albums. Still, the sentiment remains the same, even if the trappings have evolved to work with Brock & co.’s more-accessible sound. Hence the upbeat percussion, jangle-pop guitar riffs, pulsing bass lines, and blaring horn and synth back-ups of current sea-worthy video-single, “Dashboard”—it may sound peppy, but I wouldn’t want to play it at a wedding, y’know?

Like “Dashboard,” all of the outwardly good times of We Were Dead are tainted with melancholy, and the bouncy sing-along of “Fire It Up” comes off as a quite the downer if you pay attention to its examples of fleeting and/or futile happiness. Not to mention that “Fire It Up”’s readily cut-and-sampled chorus is near-destined for use in a televised ad spot streamlined for corporate America. My money is on GMC.

Sad-sack tendencies notwithstanding, Johnny Marr and his brightly-ringing guitar riffs add a noticeably poppy 80’s quality to We Were Dead, in particular to “Florida” and “People as Places as People.” Ditto for “We’ve Got Everything,” which also features backing vocals from Shins front-man James Mercer. Mercer’s other cameo appearance occurs in “Missed the Boat,” an acoustic-led track that merges Modest Mouse’s more recent diversions into Flaming Lips-like sonic density with their own morbidly upbeat pop-rock musings:

“Was it ever worth it? / Was there all that much to gain? / Well, we knew we’d missed the boat, / and we’d already missed the plane. / We didn’t read the invite, / we just danced at our own wake. / All our favourites were a-playing, / so we could shake, shake, shake, shake, shake.”

Fittingly, nautical metaphors and sinking ships abound in We Were Dead, such as the casual drops in tracks like the bass-lead foot-stomper “Education” and laid-back crooner “Little Motel.” Mercifully, Brock avoids beating a dead boat... er, horse... as “Steam Engenius” works its gruff lyrics and spastic guitar riffs to spit derision at the divide between the ready-made disposability of the working class and casual aloofness of the privileged upper class. Nary a ship to be found in that one.

“Spitting Venom” starts its eight and a half minutes of life with a bluesy strum that eventually gives way to a raucous rocker with full-band support—reverberating vox and typical Modest slop-rock, all driving bass lines and buzzing guitar riffs—before scaling back to acoustic guitar, staid skin-work, and Marr’s six-string ring, only to slowly build back into bass, brass, horns, and synth for an extended outro. Stylistically, it’s a welcome reprieve from the angst-ridden downers on We Were Dead. To whit: the exposition of decomposition in “Parting of the Sensory” is one of the darkest tracks on the whole album, with the fairly literal lyrics of “Fly Trapped in a Jar” pulling in at a close second.

In a marked departure for Modest Mouse, the reminiscent “People as Places as People” comes across like a rip from the Cure, as Marr’s influence once again brings the bright guitar riffs to bear. Album-ender “Invisible” continues with the 80’s-esque riffage and standard-issue shout-swagger-croon song progression, but its defiant chorus comes across as a bit flat: “we’ll get crushed by the ocean, but it will not get us wet.”

Oddly enough, that line sounds a wee bit optimistic, which is a rare enough thing in Modest Mouse’s work that it could very well be considered a fluke. It’s like somebody finally let Chuck kick the damn football—talk about fudging your idiom. Good grief.

Rather, grief is what makes Modest Mouse good. Call it Schadenfreude if you must, but Isaac Brock & co. are at their creative best when they’re at their emotional worst, and depression is what makes their music so damn palatable to begin with. When Brock & co. have a rough go of things, their music sounds sweeter, and your own life seems that much better by comparison. You might be able to identify with their lows, but it all comes down to the cathartic knowledge that you’ve probably never had it that bad. As Brock himself sings, you can rest assured that things “would’ve been, could’ve been worse than you would ever know.” As terrible as it may seem, that is a comforting thought.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (March 16th, 2007)

Tags: audio, reviews, modest mouse, we were dead before the ship even sank, sony, epic records