Modest Mouse’s new record was supposed to be a concept album set on the high seas. That idea got scrapped during recording, but the video for the disc’s first single sticks with the theme. A goofily entertaining period-piece clip, it features frontman Isaac Brock dressed as an old seaman in a sailor’s bar, telling a fish story about the nub at the end of his arm, to which he has attached a microphone instead of the proverbial hook. The visuals are connected to the album’s original concept, but the song’s title, “Dashboard,” suggests older, more familiar terrain for Modest Mouse. The band never put out a song cycle proper, but its early output was defined by a fixation on cars and hitting the road.
In 1996, the Issaquah, Wash., band released an expansive double album, This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About. Influenced by Built to Spill’s squeaky, childlike vocals and epic guitar heroics, early songs like “Dramamine,” “Head South,” and “Truckers Atlas” were narrated by messed-up vagabonds who were aching for movement but dubious about change. The title track of an EP that same year, Interstate 8, suggested that those roads, for all their allure, never really led anywhere: “I’m on a road shaped like a figure eight/I’m going nowhere but I’m guaranteed to be late.” Four years later, Modest Mouse extended the metaphor into the cosmos for its major label debut, The Moon and Antarctica: “The universe is shaped exactly like the Earth/If you go straight long enough you end up where you were.” The group’s instrumental aesthetic complemented the restless subject matter: Brock’s serpentine, bent-note guitar playing seemed always ready to turn a pop ditty into a meandering epic at a moment’s notice.
The follow-up, 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, mixed radio hits, a Tom Waits tribute, exotic instruments, and more—it sounded like the work of a band that was trying on a trunkful of new costumes, trying to figure out which ones fit best. But with We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, Modest Mouse finally seems to have found a musical direction. Its lineup has solidified at six members, including two drummers and, bizarrely, new guitarist Johnny Marr. His contributions on the new album are hard to discern—nothing is reminiscent of the Smiths—but his pop instincts seem to have had an impact. Unlike the willful eclecticism of Good News, We Were Dead features a half-dozen cuts that are potential single fodder: The mantralike chorus of “Fire It Up” will probably serve as some slugger’s stepping-up-to-the-plate music come spring, thanks to its refrain about, yes, firing it up. The chorus on the midtempo “Missed the Boat” is bigger and catchier than anything the band has done, with wooly layers of acoustic guitar, a cheerful tambourine, and an angelic vocal assist from the Shins’ James Mercer. Mercer has another vocal cameo on the jauntier “We’ve Got Everything,” whose “Shiny Happy People” sound belies the lyrics, which allude to resignation and resentment: “Well look at our boat in the bay/It looks like some sad-ass little canoe.”
Some of the credit for the improved sound goes to Dennis Herring, who also produced Good News. The occasional nonstandard instrumental touches on the new album are subtler and better integrated into the band’s sound. “Dashboard” has horns and the kind of woozy psychedelic strings that the Flaming Lips love, but they’re mostly subliminal sweetening; at heart, it’s a herky-jerky, propulsive rocker driven by Brock’s rhythmic singing style. And Brock’s voice, throughout, is equally streamlined, mainly sticking to a single mode—the low, throaty bark that used to alternate with his surprisingly pure high-pitched croon. The sweet tone that led off “The World at Large” on Good News, for example, a remnant of the band’s twee-leaning indie days, is missing completely. When Modest Mouse goes slow and dreamy, as on “Little Motel,” Brock is in full voice, sounding relaxed and older, like he’s quietly telling you a story over a drink. The song’s lovely extended guitar coda shows that he hasn’t lost his flair for instrumental lyricism.
The biggest downside of the new album has to do with that ship—or, rather, the lack of it. The new songs seem to have lost their specificity and point of view. Brock’s lyrics on Modest Mouse’s first three full-lengths were detailed and tangible, with a discernible stance lurking behind the couplets. For all the tightening, pumping up, and pop infusions on We Were Dead, the philosophical landscape is now fuzzier. Some threads from the past remain. “Florida,” its soaring chorus topped off with another vocal contribution from James Mercer, seems to acknowledge the futility of running (“Couldn’t quite seem to escape myself/Far enough, far enough, far from Florida”), as does the raucous dance-punk closer “Invisible,” whose lyrics hark back to early themes of travel and escape (“You’re not invisible inside your car/No matter what stupid sort of mission you’re on”).
Usually, though, the lyrics are filled with jumbled imagery like those of “Fly Trapped in a Jar” (“We had darkened doors so we didn’t read what the sign read”), the catchy but trite chant of “Fire It Up,” or the impenetrable “Steam Engenius,” on which words seem to have been chosen for their sound rather than meaning (“Bliss through waters, I was split in half/A mechanical sacrificial calf that flew”). Once a little band from outside Seattle with an off-kilter worldview and a propensity for storytelling, Modest Mouse is now a large, powerful unit that’s identifiable, above all, by its meaty sound. And we will know the band not by its stories of bleary-eyed travelers counting telephone poles or even by their big fish stories but by the hooks it’s sending directly to rock radio.