Modest Mouse’s career arc depicts the archetypal indie story: A little-known band with unique style puts out a striking and, in this case, ridiculously sprawling debut (1996’s This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About), followed by a (perhaps) even better follow-up (1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West). Eventually the band signs to a major after a bidding war, and things change. The homespun feel and free-flow of rolling bass and guitar squawks that were the band’s signature give way to dense studio production. That characteristic is championed as the merit of the band’s third album and Epic debut, The Moon & Antarctica (2000); Modest Mouse finally has the money to make the record its members wanted to make. That continued through 2004’s slick Good News for People Who Love Bad News, which oddly produces the band’s first huge hit single with “Float On” (a song that is eventually covered on American Idol) and sells a staggering 1.5 million copies. For the next step, the rising stars of indie rock hire . . . Johnny Marr?
The former Smiths guitar prodigy came to the United States to work with the band on a few songs, and the collaboration gave way to Marr’s full-blown Mouse membership. This surprised fans of Modest Mouse and the Smiths, because both bands developed distinctive guitar sound and vocals while working around recurring themes over several albums. Late last year as the project was taking form, singer/guitarist Isaac Brock dubbed it a “nautical balalaika carnival romp.” Which is the sort if “what the fuck?” thing Brock tends to spit out in interviews, but in this case it’s entirely accurate.
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank feels like the next step in the evolution of Modest Mouse’s style — in guitar, production and method — but some fans may find it a misstep. Hyper-produced and hyperactive, the members of Modest Mouse have virtually jettisoned their balance of angry stomping anthems mixed with the earnest slow-burners that gave them some heart (“Edit the Sad Parts” and West‘s “Bankrupt on Selling”) in favor of a jarring, nonstop assault. Only one track on We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, “Little Motel,” offers a respite. Mostly, the album makes good on Brock’s carnival-esque romp: tons of guitars and his testy, breathless, yee-haw vocals. The songs are dressed up in iron-clad production and layered with a million sounds bombarding at once. It’s exhausting. And I’m not sure what the songwriting process was like, but nothing particularly smacks of coming from Johnny Marr.
The album does have a handful of radio-ready singles. “Dashboard,” “Missed the Boat” and “Florida” all aim to be Modest Mouse’s next big hit and will probably be coming to K-Rock this summer. The feeling of it all being too much only fades a few times, most notably on the penultimate “People as Places as People,” where the band’s trademark guitar style peaks through.
Maybe We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is Modest Mouse’s next step toward mainstream domination. Hell, the band could become enormously relevant in terms of widespread popularity by the end if this decade; certainly enough time, toil and money has been sunk into the album. And given Good News for People Who Love Bad News‘ surprise success, and that record’s side-step away from Modest Mouse’s past, this album, too, could hit big. It’s just disappointing that the loose, playful and wayward dynamic that worked in so many of the band’s early records has little life here.