Modest Mouse – The Moon and Antarctica (2000)
I had such high hopes for The Lonesome Crowded West. But it turned out to be a droney, overlong, emoish Pixies ripoff. I dug a few tracks, but soon filed it away and returned to Fugazi.
A few years later my friends were talking about “this great new band, Modest Mouse,” and the record they just picked up at Best Buy. I shrugged and picked up The Moon & Antarctica, but again, it was a little…well…iffy.
The production was crap. Many of the songs seemed just as slight as those on The Lonesome Crowded West. The singer still lisped. The double-tracked vocals canceled each other out. The guitars lacked tactility, the bass was muddled, the cymbals were too damn loud, the rest of the drums thuddy or inaudible, and when the band tried to rock it sounded like a bad car radio with the mids cranked and the high end rolled off. Plus the cover art (the old cover art, two disembodied hands shaking over some sort of lunar landscape) sucked. What, exactly, was going on here?
At some point it hit me. The cotton-in-ears production was meant to evoke stillness, sickness, sadness. The just-out-of-earshot clattery percussion was meant to sound like the mystery and menace of nature. The out-of-nowhere shifts in tempo, structure, and style were meant to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. The record is about loneliness, wide open spaces, and juxtaposition. My favorite song, “The Stars Are Projectors,” embodies all these themes.
“The Stars Are Projectors” features some of the album’s clearest production, in the “It’s all about the moderate climates” section — and yet that singable melody is surrounded by a rocket-ship-leaving-Earth’s orbit roar on one side and a speeding-up-only-to-slow-down section on the other. In fact, the song has at least three distinct parts, all of which could be developed into typical songs, but aren’t.
I’ll tell ya. The song is hard to pin down, just as almost everything on The Moon & Antarctica is hard to pin down. Why do the guitars on “Alone Down There” get really loud all of a sudden? Why does “Lives” give up halfway through and start again as a different song? Why is the deep-freeze-of-outer-space-by-way-of-Plato’s-Cave vibe of “The Stars Are Projectors” interrupted by some dumb ditty about a plague of wild dogs?
Because The Moon & Antarctica is about uncertainty and mutability. It’s about the inevitability of death and the failure of love and friendship to stave that off. It’s cold and hard to follow for a reason. The sound of the record and the song order is meant to juxtapose emotions not in order to confuse but in order to create complexity. Out of context, many of these songs really do sound slight, but in the context of the album they are absolutely essential. After the record is over, I feel exhausted.
At any rate, that’s my take. What do my esteemed colleagues make of this album? Mess or masterpiece?
The first two tracks (“3rd Planet” and “Gravity Rides Everything”) are stone-cold classics in the MM catalog and are the first real evidence that Isaac Brock had quieted (though not silenced) his demons long enough to compose vibrant, solid songs with some consistency. Indeed, there are few flaws on The Moon & Antarctica. My only complaint is perhaps that the hooky songs distract from the supposed themes of alienation and loneliness. As regards said theme, Glenn would probably consider “The Stars are Projectors” to be the album’s centerpiece. It is surely a weird suite of great guitar work and spacey production. And most nearly evokes the Moon of any song on the record. But I tend to judge this album by all of the songs except “The Stars are Projectors.” That is, I don’t consider it a highlight.
It is in the briefer tunes that this album distinguishes itself. A concert favorite, “Paper Thin Walls” should have made Modest Mouse a radio favorite four years before “Float On.” “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” despite inspiring a perplexing covers album from Mark Kozelek, is my favorite song on the album for its insistent groove, shrieked chorus, fine lyrics (“Our hearts pump dust”), and touching slide outro.
The Moon & Antarctica is not a mess – it falls together conceptually and includes some of the band’s best songs. Masterpiece? Probably not but it’s the closest they’ve come in their 16 years together.
I had absolutely zero interest in Modest Mouse two weeks ago. And as I write this, I have listened to The Moon and Antarctica exactly twice. I do, however, remember hearing Jordy drunkenly belt out “Paper Thin Walls” at a party circa 2005. Other than that, I approached the album with fresh ears. Admittedly, my insight is limited after two listens, but I can say that the lyrics are intriguing and warrant further thought on my part. It’s too bad they are buried under such dense instrumentation. One track that sticks out in my mind is the closer, “What People are Made Of.” What are they made of, you ask? Why, water and shit, of course.
4 Essential Tracks:
“Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”
“The Stars Are Projectors”
“Paper Thin Walls”