Washington-based rock band Modest Mouse has been making powerful and poetic music since 1993. On March 17, the band released their first album in eight years, Strangers to Ourselves. Though it's been a while since they released new music, Modest Mouse's strongest suit remains: Their enigmatic lead singer, Isaac Brock, still pens the band's lyrics.
"Being an asshole is an art form, and Brock is the best in the business," MTV once wrote. "This isn't just pessimism, it's realism."
Modest Mouse was among the biggest players in the indie-rock revolution of the mid-'90s, though technically they only released a single album on an independent label, back in 1996. Nonetheless, they've acted as the voice for a disillusioned generation of slackers and stoners. Now the band is back with their passionate and unflinchingly honest take on music and the universe. Here are the 16 lines from their long career that prove that's more necessary now than ever.
"Space Travel Is Boring," This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About (1996)
Loneliness is a prevailing theme throughout Modest Mouse's lyrics; another is the effect science has on human nature. "Space Travel Is Boring" is about both. "Science finds a way to fuck things up, and then science finds a way to fix it," Brock told the A.V. Club. "For every positive thing that we accomplish, something negative comes out of it, and vice versa."
On religious fear
"Doin' the Cockroach," The Lonesome Crowded West (1997)
It's nearly impossible to talk about Modest Mouse without talking about religion and misanthropy. "[The religious world is] already fucking crazier than a shithouse rat," Brock told the A.V. Club. This is one of Modest Mouse's signature eremitic songs. Pitchfork wrote, "The epic of misanthropy 'Doin' the Cockroach' builds to extreme-sport proportions that reduce potheads to noting that, bro, if you take 'shit' out of 'catharsis' it leaves 'a scar.'"
"Bankrupt on Selling," The Lonesome Crowded West (1997)
Here's another habitually sardonic religious reference. This one tackles the material, often greedy, impulses of religious men. It's pretty spot on, considering Pontius Pilate did basically that. "The Bible is filled with stories about devastated lives because they're better tales," Brock told Pitch. "Using a metaphor about the rich and lucky is fucking boring."
On the universe
"Never Ending Math Equation," Building Nothing Out of Something (1999)
Brock may not be Christian, but he's definitely into the dark side of spirituality. "Recently, I've been writing a lot of songs about the devil and outer space," he told Lazyeye in 1998. "I'm not really into God or any of that shit, but I'm pretty sure I got a visit from the devil. He doesn't make daytime appearances; he visits you in your sleep."
Nihilism! The inescapability of death! It flows from Brock like carbon dioxide. When the A.V. Club asked Brock about his writing process, he replied (only somewhat sarcastically), "I'm constantly writing my speech to my grandkids about how I wasted my life."
"Lives," The Moon & Antarctica (2000)
Brock's lyrics often confront his listener in harsh ways. That's what leads to uncomfortable interviews like the following one Brock gave to the Wall Street Journal, "Moon & Antarctica is a fabulous record. No one liked it, really, until they had to deal with two other Modest Mouse records that they didn't like as much."
"What People Are Made Of," The Moon & Antarctica (2000)
Brock is unflinching in accusing mankind for its own poor fate. When Rolling Stone asked Brock for his thoughts on global warming, he said, "We are absolutely fucked. We did some pretty good things, but mainly just fucked up and ate a lot."
"You're the Good Things," Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks (2001)
Modest Mouse is often gloomy, but this only makes their love songs hit the sweet spot all the more forcefully. Songs like "You're the Good Things" are tender, but without sacrificing Brock's idiosyncratic delivery.
"I Came as a Rat (Long Walk Off a Short Dock)," Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks (2001)
Again, Brock lambasts Christianity and humanity's blind acceptance of dogma. "I'm 100% on the whole Christianity thing being a crock of shit," Brock told the A.V. Club. "But I don't give a fuck if other people are religious. Believe what you want. Whatever makes the day easier for you."
"The World at Large," Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004)
Here's a sliver of sunshine in Brock's otherwise bleak outlook; the conservation of energy. The name "Modest Mouse" itself comes from a Virginia Woolf allegory on death: "I wish I could hit upon a pleasant track of thought, a track indirectly reflecting credit upon myself, for those are the pleasantest thoughts, and very frequent even in the minds of modest mouse-coloured people, who believe genuinely that they dislike to hear their own praises. They are not thoughts directly praising oneself; that is the beauty of them."
"The Good Times Are Killing Me," Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004)
This song is autobiographical — it tackles Brock's famous struggle with drugs and alcohol. "There's been a lot of drug abuse," he told the A.V. Club. "I kind of regret how much I did drugs. There was a point in time when it seemed like a good plan, but it probably wasn't. Especially inhalants, and shit like that — I think I was a bit brighter before I did that. Inhalants and meth were probably the two things that totally fucking screwed me out of some brain cells."
On life after death
"Parting of the Sensory," We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (2007)
In a rare instance when Brock talked clearly about his songwriting, he told the Wall Street Journal, "The method is this: Small ideas? Don't hone in on them too much ... Find a way to make what you're saying matter to people without saying too much at all. Allow everyone enough imagination and ownership of coming to something themselves. They could come to something better, which would be great. They could come to something worse, which is dangerous."
On urban sprawl
"Convenient Parking," The Lonesome Crowded West (1997)
Modest Mouse has long been a noted critic of urban sprawl. In one of their more controversial moves (and there have been many), Nissan commissioned "Gravity Rides Everything" for an ad called "Moms Have Changed." Their hardcore fans were not happy. One particularly pissed-off fan wrote online, "YOU CANNOT WRITE SONGS LAMENTING URBAN SPRAWL, BEACH EROSION AND ALL TYPES OF OTHER MODERN BULLSHIT AND THEN SHILL FOR NISSAN YOU DISAPPOINTING MOTHERFUCKER!!!!!!" Fair enough.
"Pups to Dust," Strangers to Ourselves (2015)
Brock is poetic, but never artificial — he's suspicious of anything that seems indirect. These lines are poetic, but don't you dare call Brock a poet. "Oddly, I don't like poetry," he told the Billings Gazette (the capital-city newspaper from his home state, Montana). "Poetry, poets claim to do too much." Brock doesn't claim to do much at all. His lyrics speak for themselves.
"The Best Room," Strangers to Ourselves (2015)
This song is about Brock's own 1996 UFO sighting. He worked on writing the song until its release in 2015. "Some things are poignant, but maybe the reason they're poignant doesn't become clear for almost two decades," Brock told Studio 360.
"Shit in Your Cut," Strangers to Ourselves (2015)
In an interview with Pitch, Brock said, "That's my one rule, man. I don't talk about lyrics." We may never know the truth.