An Ode to Modest Mouse: The perfected optimistic pessimism

I actually am working on a „My favourite Modest Mouse songs“-list for quite some time now and I am pretty much done but then I had this really bad month and because I am too lazy to change my mp3-mix since weeks now, I listened to “Good News for people who love bad news” again and realized why I love certain songs so much and why Modest Mouse in general are a fantastic band. So, screw the best-of-list, here’s a long ramble why they rule.

The first Modest Mouse-song I’ve ever heard, this one started it all.

Now, we all know that MM have an impressive catalogue and I am not going to claim that I know all the songs or that I am a die-hard fan. I always love listening to their music and there are albums that I listen to every other month and other albums that I timidly put on now and then when I feel I have the time and head space to concentrate (I mean, we all know that their early music was pretty spacey and experimental to the point of being slightly stressful on the long run). As a writer, one of the main strengths – besides their insanely awesome sense for a good melody and layering – are their lyrics. Isaac Brock has such a unique voice as a writer and does this thing where he writes a line that is very simplistic on the first glance but then turns into something absolutely brilliant (in a way, it’s like a Mitch Hedberg-joke).

I recently wrote a list with songs to make me happy when I am sad and sure, they help quite often. But sometimes, when life is not sad but rather really really frustrating, I need to listen to music that is a little more aggressive. And boy, Modest Mouse can be aggressive. From Brock’s vocal outbursts to the exploding guitars and the dissonant beauty of songs like “Bury me with it” to lyrics like “Some day you will die and somehow something’s going to steal your carbon”, these guys go through quite some rage in their albums. However, it never feels self-destructive or destructive in any other way. “Parting of the Sensory” might seem fatalistic as does “Wild pack of family dogs” but at the same time, these songs deal with acceptance. In fact, a huge buttload (no grammar program, I don’t mean “boatload”) of Modest Mouse songs deal with accepting that heap of shit that life can be.

I have this theory about the 90s. The 60s had their revolutionaries, the people who thought they could change the world. The 70s had the punks that didn’t want to be part of the world. The 80s had a lot of denial that was bathed in excess, mixed with a certain apathy in the goths and new wavers and the somewhat depressing romanticism of the Smiths. And then there were the 90s. The “Reality Biters”, the “Singles”. The people who knew that you could never really fight the establishment because you were part of it. The people who still wanted to change things but kind of knew that it was a little bit of a Sisyphus task and that every form of extremism would be destructive. The people who fought through the dire reality with biting sarcasm. The Darias.

“I’m hung up on this decade”

(The Waydown)

Modest Mouse are like a really beautiful version of this sentiment because there is this musical beauty that – for a first time listener – seems really chaotic and has this anger of punk-music but is in fact quite structured and even has elements of pop (Modest Mouse songs old and new can be so darn catchy). The lyrics – for a first time listener – seem to come from a depressed generation of party-poopers but then open up to be about keeping your head up, fighting through the crap, floating on and trying not to be an asshole on the way.

The concept of catharsis is an interesting thing that started with the clever Greeks and initially was explained with gooey stuff inside of us that was made of all the bad emotions that had to come out. It made for a gross metaphor but essentially was a nice way to explain why we might be drawn to art, especially art that is horrific, sad and/or shocking. Why would anyone want to experience something negative when they don’t have to? Why do people want to see Romeo & Juliet die and why do we listen to Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” even if we’re sobbing like babies by the third verse? Well, we can let it out without having to go through the pain of experiencing it firsthand, that’s what it is. Usually, something cathartic in art is the process of watching tragedy and horror from a safe distance but at the same time relating to it through our own traumas (and unfortunately, we all have them). In a way, it helps to work through subconscious things, to feel elevated after crying over “Toy Story 3” because we all had to say goodbye to someone important at some point and it feels good to share that to know that this is universal, to know that you are not alone. To let out that black, green and yellow goo without drilling holes in your brain, to pick up the beautiful metaphor.

Modest Mouse – as cheesy as this might sound – achieve this so effortlessly that it can be scary. Because their music is not too easy to approach, because you have to work a little to see all those finely crafted songs underneath all this gorgeous noise, it feels as if you’ve earned this connection. Someone’s been there, was angry, was frustrated, lost things, broke things, forgot things and messed them up. Someone has been through tough times, was stupid, was too loud, too cocky and had to deal with the fucking consequences. Someone has to deal with the worst people over and over again and has to behave, be nice because that’s what you do. Someone still keeps going and tries to realize that we all take it one step at a time. It might get worse before it gets better but at least you can give an understanding nod to a friend who knows that feel, bro. And at that point, you can actually see some cancer-inducing sunlight at the end of the tunnel and boy, it’s beautiful.


2 thoughts on “An Ode to Modest Mouse: The perfected optimistic pessimism

  1. Oh rats! Now I’ll have to leave behind my carefully crafted snobbery and reconsider Modest Mouse. They must have emerged when I was in one of my too-cool-for-school phases. The same thing happens to me now whenever Pitchfork relentlessly raves, album after album, about an artist that doesn’t immediately grab me (such as Kanye West).


    1. Oh yeah, that Kanye West-thing is indeed difficult because I respect his vision but don’t really like his music. However, sometimes, it’s just a matter of taste, if you don’t like something, you don’t like something.
      I would recommend “Good news for people who love bad news” as a Modest Mouse-try-out, it’s one of my favourites. I am not judging you if you don’t, though.


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