I have a beer mug at a local restaurant where I live. It means a couple of things for me: Cheap craft beer, an interesting view of the community surrounding the restaurant, and a pretty close-ish relationship with the wait staff. It’s a great deal and if I can recommend anything, I recommend getting a “mug” or “glass” at your local drinkery if they do that kind of thing – its pretty cool.
By getting to know a lot of the wait staff, you tend to have some pretty rudimentary get-to-know-you conversations and, naturally, some of those revolve around music. The following is written from memory from a conversation I had with an employee approximately two or three years ago. She still works at this restaurant and is a very nice girl. It went something like this:
[question]Oh nice shirt![/question]
*I look down and take a look at the shirt, noticing it’s a Modest Mouse shirt*
[answer]Oh thanks. Are you a fan?[/answer]
[question]I LOVE Modest Mouse. One of my favorite bands.[/question]
[answer]No shit! Mine too. My favorite band, actually. What’s your favorite album?[/answer]
[question]Ohhhh. The green one with the arrows… Good News? For People…[/question]
[answer]…People Who Love Bad News?[/answer]
[question]Yes! I love that one. I love whenever “Dashboard” plays in the restaurant too. What’s yours?[/question]
[answer]The Lonesome Crowded West.[/answer]
[question]Ohhh right, I don’t know that one quite as much.[/question]
Let it be known, I don’t have anything against this girl – she’s a nice girl and is generally a pleasant conversationalist. But this is the conversation that, in some form, I’ve been having for more than a decade now and it’s prevalent to discussing the bands mainstream crossover success.
I’ll admit, as far as 10 year retrospects go, writing about Modest Mouse’s generally underappreciated 2007 album We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank is grasping at straws for a couple of reasons. While it’s not as though the album was panned upon its release (the album averages a 78 on Metacritic and produced a pretty successful mainstream radio single in “Dashboard”, more on those things in a moment,) the consensus feeling amongst Modest Mouse fans during the album’s rollout was curiosity hinged on dread, in part because of the kinds of conversations that were taking place like the one depicted above. Now that the band was an active part of the quote-unquote “mainstream”, everyone knew who they were for better or for worse: Better being an exposure to the band’s tremendous catalog, Worse being “a fan of that ‘Float On’ song.”
Naturally We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, as the title would imply, was built for failure. Whether or not Isaac Brock and company intended to (although with a title like that I think it’s obvious), this album was a reactionary response meant to absorb all of the hate fans might throw at it while still cementing their status as a legitimate mainstream rock outlet. The inclusion of The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr and The Shins’ James Mercer doing backup vocals were safeguards fed to the press that seemed to ease expectations for the album and garner some goodwill.
For a long time, the hedge clippers and accordions that kicked off We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank signaled a kind of end-of-an-era in Modest Mouse, and retrospectively with how underwhelming Strangers To Ourselves was when it finally dropped after an 8 year hiatus, I think it’s safe to say that sentiment still rings true. Its fashionable as a Modest Mouse fan to hate on We Were Dead and Good News and, in some cases, the vitriol spewed is justified and probably accurate. After all, it IS annoying that there are way too many Modest Mouse n00bs.
But We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank deserves to be viewed as a minor-masterpiece removed from the torch and pitchfork cries of “Sellout” and removed from whatever feelings you have towards “Float On”.
Let’s start with the single: “Dashboard”. While it understandably received mixed reviews from Modest Mouse die-hards, the single achieved the similar sonic arm distance that its other successful brother “Float On” had during its release. If “Float On” was touted as the first time Isaac Brock got happy, “Dashboard” musically amps up the stakes and coats itself in neon lights and sugary alcoholic drinks. To that point, we hadn’t heard a Modest Mouse song quite like it, something that played with conventions of modern earworm hooks while still featuring the quirky instincts of Brock and Co.: Eastern string arrangements, memorable drums from Jeremiah Green, understated brass, and Brock’s confident and lispy hollers.
For all its pop-leaning glory, “Dashboard” succeeds in embracing its new pop identity in ways that “Float On” couldn’t because there was no way to know “Float On” would be a hit. Looking back ten years, “Dashboard” became one of the most consistent “indie rock” fill in track for Pandroa stations at restaurants and shopping malls ever. Standing confidently among the likes of “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand and “Last Nite” by the Strokes, “Dashboard” feels built to stand with these songs in ways “Float On” never could.
And while “Float On” seemed to help negatively define the rest of Good News for many people, “Dashboard” casted only a minimal amount of negative kickback. Fans who went into We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank looking to hate the album were delivered a mixed bag. “March Into the Sea” is a behemoth opener, with Brock sounding as maniacal as ever amidst his growling laughter. Tracks like “Parting of the Sensory” and “Spitting Venom”, both longer tracks for the modern era of Modest Mouse, proved that the group could still chart a ton of ground within a song and still had harsh edges and intense anger. Songs like “Little Motel” and “People As Places As People” showed embracing sadness wasn’t out of wheelhouse either. There is certainly a lot for a longtime Modest Mouse fan to appreciate, but then again that was true of Good News as well – if you could remove yourself from the surrounding narrative you’d realize that Isaac Brock and co. hadn’t REALLY changed all that much, but now more people are listening.
And with that newfound spotlight came natural changes. Re-listening to Good News For People Who Love Bad News has lead to a few takeaways, and one of the big ones is that there really aren’t any songs as pop-friendly as “Float On”. Tracks like “The View” and “Black Cadillacs” try to match but fail, and the actual follow up singles “Ocean Breathless Salty” and “The World At Large” feel out of place and reactionary to an improbable hit. Meanwhile you don’t have to look far to find worthwhile tracks similar to “Dashboard”, a fact that likely turned many off from We Were Dead. “Florida”, “Fire It Up”, “We’ve Got Everything” and “Missed the Boat” sparkle, shimmer and fade with similarly glossy production and radio-ready worthiness.
Understandably, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank is harder than ever to truly define 10 years later. Since that release, we saw the group put out an EP of what-if B-Sides, take 8 years off, and then release their most underwhelming album yet. That time off combined with the manic lukewarmness of Strangers To Ourselves has been very beneficial to our 20/20 hindsight of the mainstream Modest Mouse era.
But it never really should have been so decisive. History should rightly (and has begun to) show Good News as being an excellent album shrouded by its unintentional success and We Were Dead as addressing that success head on. Even if the band’s 2007 album fails to live up to the group’s previous masterworks, the thing that’s missed in all of this is that it was never trying to. Good News threw people a band that the mainstream was unequipped to handle but We Were Dead offered those new fans a way to understand them without pandering or compromising.
The die-hard Modest Mouse fans could continue to argue that Marr and Mercer and the decidedly pop-ready track listing IS pandering and compromising, and that’s fair. I guess I can’t really argue against that point. But once you have a hit single, the ship is going down and Isaac Brock saw the writing on the wall. Rather than rage against it, he embraced it and made an album that truly caters to both the casual and the hardcore fan, for better or for worse. We Were Dead If The Ship Even Sank, even in spite of its flaws, would turn out to be the ultimate “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” album and comes out the other side all the better for it.