The beat of the kick drum is the sound of a brass doorknocker thumping outside the vast, hollow halls of limbo. This isn't the steroidal whop of Lars Ulrich kicking Thor in the gonads. No, the thud that Benjamin Weikel makes on "The World at Large," the first song on Modest Mouse's latest album, is heavy but tentative. About a minute into the track he taps once, twice. Then he bangs four more times, as if sounding the echoey depths of a hidden chamber. Hey, are you alone in there? Am I alone out here? Are we alone together?
The answers to the first two questions are yes and yes. Or at least that's what I imagine Modest Mouse's woebegone lyricist would say. Though I've never made the acquaintance of 28-year-old Isaac Brock, I'd bet a stack of sobriety chips that he's an "I'm not OK, you're not OK, and oh, while you're asking, the universe is totally fucked" kind of guy. Maybe I'm looking for the smiley side of suicide here, but I'm still going to maintain that it's the answer to that last, paradoxical question—are we alone together?—that matters most. Let's come back to that one later.
The title of Modest Mouse's Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic) sounds like a cross between a knock-knock joke and a Jenny Holzer truism. Nonetheless, that title got me thinking: What are today's Modest Mouse headlines? Here are some of the stories Isaac Brock is following in our Channel Zero news center. Troubled man plans canine massacre: "Gonna take this sack of puppies/Gonna set it out to freeze" ("This Devil's Workday"). Firearm accidentally discharges, resulting in head wound: "Your gun went off/Well you shot off your mouth and look where it got you" ("The View"). Labor leaders bemoan stagnant wages: "Life handed us a paycheck/We said, 'We worked harder than this'" ("Bury Me With It"). More depressing developments on our news at 3 a.m. Now to Isaac with the weather. Isaac, is it true that a typhoon and biblical floods could be headed our way this holiday weekend?
In song after song, Brock forecasts rising ennui, alienation, stasis, regret. And though the lyrics are for the most part impressionistic and disjointed, he returns repeatedly to the four elements of the ancient Greeks: earth, water, fire, air. Way more than half of the songs here refer to the ocean, the river, the undertow. Folks float on; ships sink. Another batch of songs digs into the chthonic: dirt, coffins, death.
These obsessions hold, even as the observer seems to change. Every song has an "I," but the speaker has no name. Maybe he's a crackpot ranting at the insects in an empty parking lot. He's a bad boyfriend confessing by cell phone. He's a philosopher king, bellowing decrees across the wasteland.
All of which is another way of saying: Maybe he's the prodigal son of David Byrne. The single "Float On" finds Brock stretching his vocal cords like a strand of soured bubble gum and doing the herky-jerk around the beat. And the slightly hysterical sing-speak on the verses to "The View" echoes another old trick by the art geek in the oversized suit. I don't know if it's etymologically possible for one falsetto to be faker than another one, but it's obvious that Brock devotes a lot more energy to being mannered than to being manly.
Brock, Brock, Brock, Brock, Brock, Brock. Say the name enough times and it sounds like the clucking of a hen. Brock Brock Brock Brock Brock! Brock Brock Brock! I wouldn't make too much of the poultry connection here, but then there is something Chicken Little–ish about this musician and his unrelenting anxieties. One minute he's clucking, "We are our own damn coffins." The next he's chiding some other poor schlep in life's barnyard, "You wasted life, why wouldn't you waste death?"
Near the end of the album, on the track called "One Chance," he manages to muster some perspective on things, singing, "My friends, my habits, my family, they mean so much to me." It's a sentiment he's quick to subvert with a cri de coeur—"I'm just a box in a cage!"—that could come from a high-school poetry journal (or a Nine Inch Nails song, which may be the same thing). Prithee tell me: Is being a box in a cage any different from being a cage in a box?
Some of this stuff strikes me as ironic sophistry—good news for people who like bad news. Some of it's solipsism. The thing that redeems these songs, that invites the listener into this lonely crowded netherworld, is the joyous sound made by the band. In 2002, Brock put out a solo project under the typically self-loathing label Ugly Casanova. The next logical step on this highway to solitude, one fears, would have been Ted Kaczynski's cabin. Here, Eric Judy's melodic bass lines are around to keep Brock company, climbing and dipping along with the vocals on "One Chance." Elsewhere, Dann Gallucci's piano ambles abreast of the vocals on "Blame It on the Tetons."
Beyond these two core noisemakers is a symphony of slacker strings and guitar sproings and second-line horns. And it's this very clutter that helps to unearth the enjoyment that is otherwise buried up to the neck. For the sake of comparison, think of Carl Stalling's soundtracks to the torments of Wile E. Coyote, which make it tolerable to watch that fleet-footed little asshole beep-beep away. On second thought, don't Modest Mouse sound like a cartoon character ready-made for our own looney tune world? When we hear Brock's plaintive sighs, maybe we really ought to be listening for the sound of a Bronx cheer, and a big-grinned trickster yowling, That's all, folks!
Modest Mouse play the Deck the Hall Ball with Franz Ferdinand, the Killers, Keane, the Shins, and Snow Patrol at 6 p.m. Thurs., Dec. 9. $35.